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Life After Techno

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zero day

“Congrats, asshole,” Firefist said, grinning and bloodied. “You’ve got me.”

In the gray light of the dying day, the hunter’s eyes burned orange. Firefist lay on his back in the wreckage, under sputtering bars of light torn from the ceiling. He had a hand pinned under a slab of concrete, one that he could no longer feel save through a blinding burst of pain. The other was nailed to the ground by a metal strut.

Cable didn’t answer. Firefist had done as much as he could during the fight. Burned the air itself, slagged the ground, collapsed the concrete roof, the walls. His enemy was relentless. Just as his reputation had said he would be. Firefist had known it would come to this. Deep down he’d been waiting for it. It’d been why he had burned who he had.

“Come on,” Firefist taunted, as the hunter walked closer. “Infection got your tongue?”

No answer. The techno-organic disease eating at Cable had worsened visibly during the fight. Firefist hadn’t known that it could do that—he’d heard that the disease, while very rare, tended to slowly kill its host over a matter of years. It had now spread over Cable’s throat and all over his face, eating his remaining human eye. It was restless on his left arm, the metal cords under his arm plates writhing and thickening. His arm lost definition as Cable stood over Firefist, the coils now each as thick as his wrist, snaking over the floor.

“What’s happening?” Firefist demanded. “What are you doing?”

No answer. For the first time in the long decades of his extended life since he had been a child, Firefist felt the first stirrings of fear. He wrenched his hand free of the metal strut and called the fire. It glanced off Cable’s gravimetric shield, scorching the ceiling. Then it was too late. Cable stood over him and the coils were heavy over Firefist’s arm, his chest and throat. Cable let out a small sound of defeat ground out through lungs that were no longer his and closed his eyes. As the coils thickened and the disease began to eat Cable’s remaining flesh, Firefist began to scream.

now

“’Ness?” Wade whispered as his vision began to clear. His regrowing eyeballs itched, always an unpleasant feeling. Everything else from the neck down hurt in a dulled way. The dark-haired woman bent over him swam slowly into focus.

“Finally working,” she said to someone Wade could not see.

“Doesn’t even hurt as much as it should,” Wade tried to say, though his words mostly edged out as a croak. “How many drugs am I on? Not that I’m complaining. These drugs are awesome.”

“I wish the process wasn’t so…” A deep voice, somewhere to Wade’s left. “Could you regrow everything from a head?”

“Don’t know.” The woman shuddered, muttering something under her breath in Spanish. Wade tried to frown. Ness didn’t speak Spanish. Had she picked that up? “Turn up the dosage.”

“You sure? He’s already dosed with twice the amount of serum he should be able to take. And we don’t have much left to spare.”

“Take it out of the reserve I’m getting for the trip,” the woman said, impatient. “Do it. If Bishop asks? Tell him it was my call. The window’s tomorrow. No time to fuck around.”

“I love you,” Wade tried to say. The world grew dark.

#

“Hey.”

Wade opened his eyes, blinking against the light. He held up his hand to shade it out and stared as he saw how smooth his skin was. With a gasp, Wade sat up and ran his palms over his face. Smooth skin. Even a little hair. “Flaming. Shitballs. I’m cured?”

“No. You still have cancer. No facilities to treat it here. You’re on a shit ton of ability-accelerant serum. Your healing factor’s in overdrive right now at a factor of eight. But it’ll wear off. Comedown will be a bitch. Take it from me.”

Wade looked over at the speaker. “You’re not Ness.”

He wasn’t able to hide his sheer disappointment. The woman looked briefly confused. “Who?” She pointed at herself. “Laura.”

Now that Wade’s head was clear, Laura didn’t sound like Ness either. Her English was thickly accented, Mexican, if Wade had to guess. She was almost the same height and build as Ness had been, but there the resemblance ended. Wade couldn’t place Laura’s age. She had nearly the same hair, though darker and straighter. There was a feral intensity to her dark eyes, a killing stillness that Wade recognised from his years in the Special Forces, from merc work, from the mirror on a bad day. She was wearing a black shirt that bared her arms, combat fatigues and boots. No weapons.

Wade looked down. He was in a discoloured hospital gown on a cot. The walls and floor of the room were concrete, and he was hooked up to a drip. Medical equipment in the room and the lights were running off a humming generator in the corner. “Where the hell am I?”

“Sundown Quarantine Zone. In your time, this was New York City. Found you two days ago on recon. You were in timestamped cryostorage.” Laura pulled a face. “Just your head.”

“What do you mean ‘my time’? What year is it?”

“2118.”

“Well, that’s convenient. A nice, neat, hundred years into the fucking future. Fuckity fuck.” Wade blinked slowly. “Why the hell did you guys wake me up? I was trying to stay dead. Wasn’t that fucking obvious?”

Laura shrugged. “We found your head frozen inside a large tub of Nutella marked with ‘Open In Case of the Apocalypse’ post-it notes.”

Fuck Weasel. On hindsight, entrusting the disposal of the remainder of his (im)mortal bits to a man with the humour quotient of a sugar-addled child had been a bad idea. Wade rubbed his temple. “So. It’s the apocalypse? What flavour? Zombie? Please tell me it’s zombie.”

Laura let out a sharp, harsh laugh. “No. No zombie. Metal.”

“Heavy metal? What, like Escape from L.A. sort of metal? Terminator metal? Black Sabbath metal?”

“You’ll see.” Laura got to her feet. “You can fight?”

“Guns, swords, sure. They still have those in the future?”

“We have your gear. Your guns are too old. We give you new. Your swords and clothes we give back.” Laura nodded at a box in the corner of the room. “Wear and follow.”

“All right. First. One hundred years into the future? Cool story, Marvel, thanks for nothing. Secondly. I said I wanted to stay dead. So if you don’t mind. After I cut my head back off, put it into the Nutella tin you got me from and refreeze me. Without the post-it notes.”

Laura rolled her eyes. “Coward.”

Wade grit his teeth. “You don’t know anything about me, twinkletoes.”

Laura sneered. “Coward. Put your own head back in your box.” She turned, stalking out of the room, stiff-legged.

Annoyed, Wade got off the bed. He stumbled for the first couple of steps, wincing at the chill from the floor. “Hey. Hey! I’m not done talking to you!”

Laura spat to the side and sped up. Wade had to run to chase her down. “Hey!” Wade snarled. He tackled her. Fury was easier to deal with. It burned away grief, his black despair at being fucking immortal after all, of all the fucking people in the world. Burned away guilt. Violence had always been easier for Wade. Simpler. Laura roared, a throat-shredding guttural howl that was way too outsized from someone who didn’t even come up to Wade’s shoulder. She twisted out of his grip and slammed his head into the concrete with a wet crack. Wade yelped, grabbing her wrists and shoving her roughly back. She was way heavier than she looked, and he only budged her a couple of steps. Wade scrambled to his feet as Laura bared her teeth, her eyes bright with rage.

“Wow, someone’s on a hair trigger,” Wade said, just as Laura charged him, fists swinging. She was fast. Got in a couple of punches before Wade feinted and hit her back across the jaw, hard enough to knock her sideways. She grinned through her veil of hair, a hyena grin of maddened hatred-joy. This time she pounced like a cat, bearing him down. Wade twisted as they went, kneeing her in the stomach. As she rolled off with a huff, he tried to pin her arms. Laura screamed in his ear. As Wade flinched back instinctively, she grabbed his arm and twisted, hard, snapping it at an ugly angle.

Wade yelped. “Okay, you’re really starting to piss me off.”

You piss me off!” Laura snarled. She stumbled back as Wade knifed his palm into her throat, crouching for another spring.

Someone grabbed her with an arm lock across her neck. “Laura! Laura. Calm down. God’s sake, calm down.”

Wade backed away a few steps, snapping his arm back into place with a wrench and a wince of pain. Laura hissed, clenching her hands into fists, but she went still with a sullen scowl and smacked her hand on the arm around her throat.

The man behind her eased up. He was a black man, tall and solidly built, a strange M-shaped scar cut over one eye. He wore his greying hair in thick dreads and a red scarf over kevlar. “We good?” he told her.

Laura glared at Wade. “He no’ coming.” Her accent had thickened. She spat the rest in Spanish, gesturing angrily at Wade.

M-scar raised his hands up placatingly. “Take a walk, Laura. Pack up. Window’s opening in a few hours. I’ll go with you, all right?”

Laura shot him an incredulous look. “No. No, no. You’ll die.”

“You’re good, but you know you can’t make it to Ground Zero by yourself. Not even your father would’ve been that good.”

Laura’s shoulders slumped, all the rage abruptly sucked out of her. She stepped around M-scar and walked away without looking back. M-scar waited until Laura had rounded the corner, then he held out a palm. “Bishop,” he said.

“Wade,” Wade said, shaking Bishop’s palm. Why the hell not. “Your friend Laura needs some serious anger management counseling.”

“She’s had a difficult life. It left its mark.” Bishop shot him a friendly once-over. “How about you get dressed, and then we’ll talk?”

“I kinda meant it when I said I wanted to re-buried where you guys found me. Maybe without the Nutella jar.”

“Sure. If that’s what you want. What’s the rush? C’mon. I’ll get you a drink. After that, if you want to go back on ice, I’d do it for you myself.”

“No post-it notes.” Wade paused. “Different post-it notes.”

“If you like.”

“Fine.” Wade retreated into the infirmary. He put on his gear with muscle memory. It felt good to pull on the suit. Even the scabbards. Before Wade pulled on the mask, he looked around until he found a small mirror tucked over a bench of surgical equipment. Rubbed his fingertips over the smooth skin on his cheeks with disbelief.

“Shit,” Wade said, surrounded by quiet. He exhaled. Left the mask off and went out to talk to Bishop.

#

The future only had homebrewed moonshine for alcohol, but Wade supposed he couldn’t be picky in the apocalypse. Sundown was some sort of underground town, a warren of reinforced concrete rooms interconnected by solid corridors. No windows. “The future has way too much Brutalist architecture,” Wade told Bishop. The canteen was empty. Two exits, rows and rows of benches. It reminded Wade uncomfortably of the Icebox.

“All the Quarantine Zones are like this,” Bishop said, with a wave at the walls. “Ten inches of concrete. Lead core, if you can manage it. Solar powered, generator backups, air cycled through a closed circuit filtration system. Only way to be safe.”

“Safe from what? I’m told it’s not zombies. I know mass media’s seriously over-zombied right now, what with games and films and tv, but if I have to wake up in the future I should at least get a chance to grope Norman Reedus.”

Bishop frowned at him for a long moment. “Not zombies. It’s hard to explain.” He tapped at something on his wrist and brought up a holographic screen. It was a view of segmented gunmetal coils, snaking down a concrete corridor, their tips coming to a stop inches away from a crackling electric field. The coils shifted restlessly in a disturbing, vaguely organic way.

“… Not sure what I’m looking at and all my first guesses are R-rated,” Wade said.

“We call it the techno-organic virus,” Bishop said.

Techno? As in electronic dance music?” Wade said, horrified. “People dance to Strings of Life until they die?”

“What? No?”

“Jesus. For a moment there I thought Marvel’s writers finally wrote something original.” That was a relief.

“It’s an alien virus, as far as we can tell. A planet-killer from another civilisation. Ever heard of the Dark Forest theory?” Bishop asked. Wade shook his head. “‘The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds another life—another hunter, angel, or a demon, a delicate infant to tottering old man, a fairy or demigod—there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them.’”

Wade finished noisily drinking his cup of moonshine. “Sorry, wasn’t listening.”

Bishop exhaled. “The reason why we haven’t met any aliens is because alien civilisations either hide from or try to kill each other. Solution to the Fermi Paradox.”

“Makes sense. So. Alien Apocalypse?” Wade asked hopefully. “‘Cos, y’know, from this angle it looks like the Tentacle Apocalypse, which could be fun if this was a certain kind of manga, but I’m betting it’s not.”

“Sort of the alien apocalypse,” Bishop conceded. “We don’t know exactly what happened, but years ago the infection started somewhere in New York. It overtook everything. Ate organic life forms, grew over everything else. All of North America except the parts covered with permafrost. It’s spreading over South America now.

“We’ve tried everything. ICBMs, pulsars, nukes, the works. The virus regrows. Faster than ever. And it mutates. Experts think at its current growth rate it’d figure out a way over the oceans. Then we’re all fucked.” Bishop made a gesture with his fingers. The hologram zoomed out, showing a satellite image of New York. One that Wade didn’t recognise. The skyscrapers were interlinked by thick metallic webworks and great coils that fed through and around buildings, spiking over roads and railways.

“This is like Giger on steroids,” Wade said, impressed. “Motherfucker. Is that what this is? I mean, there’s nothing new under the sun, right? Miss Anger Issues is Mexican Ripley and we have to kill the Xenomorph Queen?”

“We have to kill something,” Bishop said soberly. “Here’s what we know. Stepping outside isn’t immediately lethal if you’re in a hazmat suit. That’s how we can afford to build and maintain these prefab bunkers out here. We’ve been tunneling closer and closer to Ground Zero. Sundown is as far as we can get. Past this point, the infection starts actively fighting back.”

“So what’s your plan? You guys have a plan, right? Outside of setting Pocket Rocket loose and stepping back?”

Bishop smiled tightly. “Believe me, that works better than you might think. Three times a year, there’s a window. The infection goes quiet. When that happens, you can walk around suited up almost anywhere without getting bothered. That’s usually the time when we get a lot of salvage, construction, and maintenance stuff done.”

“But Ground Zero still has xenomorphs,” Wade guessed.

“It’s still defended, yes. That’s where someone like Laura comes in. And you. You both have healing factors. You’d both be immune to the techno-organic virus. You’re combat-trained, or Laura would’ve seriously mauled you before I could pull her off you. That means the both of you can get to the heart of Ground Zero. Before the window closes.”

“Aaand… flamethrower the Queen? ‘Cos that didn’t go too well in the film. Eggs get laid in people and stuff. I’m way too young to be pregnant with aliens.”

Bishop grimaced with disgust. “Really don’t think it’d get to that. Though. We don’t know what’s at the heart of Ground Zero. No team’s ever gotten close. Laura nearly did last year, but she had to retreat to save her team. With you, she’d have a better chance.”

Wade stared at the metal coils, sucking on his teeth. Metal Apocalypse. Fuck. Yeah. “Okay.”

“You’re in?” Bishop stared, surprised.

“I guess this is a cooler way to die, if it comes to that,” Wade conceded. “But I want guns. Lots of guns.”

“We can do that.”

“And. This serum thing that you guys injected into me. How much of it d’you guys have?”

Bishop narrowed his eyes. He understood. “In Sundown? We still have ten doses or so. You’d both need it for the trip. If you survive and help us stop the virus? You can have as much of it as you want. I’ll take you to the processing plant myself. Or we could try to cure your cancer.”

“Cancer isn’t the reason I look like this in this timeline. Besides, I don’t need that much serum. Just however much you injected into me to get this effect.” Wade gestured at his face. “Right before you keep your promise to refreeze my head. In something nicer than a Nutella jar.” Maybe that was the problem. Why he couldn’t reconnect with Vanessa. Maybe the serum would make him whole enough for the dream to change.

Bishop stared at him for a long moment. “And you think Laura has issues.”

“Never said I didn’t. Deal?”

Bishop exhaled. “Deal.” He rubbed a palm slowly over his face. “I hope we don’t all regret this. Cryo must have done something to you. Scrambled something.”

“Cryo? Nah. This is me au naturale, baby. Say, why do you have an ‘M’ scar over your face? Are you a Magnus? People called Magnus in Marvel tend to screw the pooch. Kinda like the core members of the Erik club.”

“…I think I’m beginning to understand why Laura tried to kill you.”

“That? Pssh. Tinier women have tried to murder me and failed. And bigger women. And various people of various body shapes and types, all of whom I appreciated as people, in a non-creepy way, before I either ran away or killed them back, depending on the circumstances. None quite so angry though.” Wade paused. “I did know one guy who was just as angry. He was kinda an outlier as a fellow Canadian.”

Bishop shook his head and poured Wade the rest of the bottle of moonshine. “Christ. Just drink up. Then I’ll show you the armoury.”

Now we’re talking.”

Chapter Text

“Laura!” Amka leaned towards the screen, nearly filling it up with her anxious face. Age had cut deep lines into her tattooed brown face and turned her thick black hair white. She was wrapped in several layers of fabri-wools, dyed in bright colours. “Mason said that you found another person with a healing factor.”

“That’s right.” Laura managed not to grimace. She’d put off making the call back to New Eden as long as she could. The window was opening in an hour. Laura managed a smile. “He’s coming along. Bishop talked him into it.”

“That’s… good?” Amka looked even more worried. “You don’t look happy about it.”

Laura looked around reflexively. Her Sundown room was small, simple, and clean. Bed, table and chair, locker. It had been poorly aired—it’d been empty until she’d come to Sundown with Bishop to wait for a chance at the window. Sundown was growing quieter over the years as the infection worsened and people kept either shuffling south or over the sea, but it felt strange to have a room to her own. Space was at a premium in New Eden. Not even being one of the Founding Fourteen of the original Eden in North Dakota entitled Laura to her own room.

“I don’t like him,” Laura said.

“You don’t like anyone, qavvik,” Amka said. She chuckled, a joyous sound that made Laura start to smile—until Amka started wheezing and coughing.

You should be resting,” Laura said, concerned. “Isn’t the heating working?”

“Pssh. I grew up here. My people have always been here. I laugh at the cold.”

“You didn’t grow up this far north.” This was an old and often circular argument. Laura shook her head. New Eden had been built under Alert, an old military station that had been abandoned for decades. New Eden was the northernmost continuously inhabited settlement in the world now. And yet the infection was still coming. It crept closer each time there was a full snowmelt. “How’s everyone?”

“Keeping. They miss you. You should come back more often.”

“Yes, yes.” Laura faked brusqueness. She listened to Amka talk about settlement matters quietly. Laura didn’t miss New Eden. She didn’t know it as her home. Home had been a sprawling, raucous settlement in North Dakota that had hidden itself from government sweeps until the world grew too small to hide in. Then it had held out against the Sentinels and the Hounds until it had finally been defeated by a fucking alien virus. It wasn’t fair. Not that Laura had been surprised. Life had never been fair.

“So what’s the plan?” Amka asked, maybe sensing Laura’s distraction.

“We go to Ground Zero and kill something.”

“That’s all?”

“I’m good at that,” Laura said, indifferent. “I like my plans simple.”

“Is Bishop going with you?”

“He can’t. Too close to Ground Zero and people with no healing factors get affected, remember? Even during a window.”

Amka nodded. “The hallucinations? You’re immune to that, right? And the new guy.”

Laura shook her head. “Everyone sees things near Ground Zero. Even me.” It was her least favourite part of the mission. Didn’t help that she was going to have to go at it again with a stranger who clearly wasn’t stable and was possibly even psychotic. “How’s Shoji? Gotten better from the ‘flu yet?”

Amka accepted the curt change of subject with grace. They talked about the others until there was a polite staccato knock on the door. Laura said her goodbyes as casually as she could, as though she was just heading out for a walk. She shut down the vidcall and slung on her backpack. Took a breath.

Bishop was kitted up outside, his pulse gun cradled in his arms, a backpack over his shoulders. “Okay?” Bishop asked.

“You’re not coming.” Laura scowled.

“It’s a couple of days’ walk to Ground Zero. At the least. The window usually lasts a few days. I’ll be fine.”

“Usually.”

Bishop grinned at her, humourless. “Just wanna make sure you don’t disembowel the new guy and string him up for the Critters the moment you guys walk out of sight of Sundown.”

“Where is he anyway?” Laura fell into step beside Bishop.

“Already at the north entrance. Keagan’s watching him.”

“You think it’s a good idea? Taking along a psychotic stranger?”

“He’s got a healing factor that’s at least as good as yours,” Bishop said, nodding at Laura. “Sounds like a good idea to me.”

Laura sniffed. “He’s pre-Recission. Powers probably faded.” Just like her father’s had.

“Doesn’t appear so from the tests. And you saw what he could do. Regenerate just from a head.”

“He has no reason to help us. I don’t trust him. If he attacks me again, I’m not gonna hold back.”

“I’ve given him the warning.” Bishop looked resigned. The warning hadn’t gone down well, then. Good. Even at the end of the world, Laura was used to being underestimated. Whether it was because of her physical size, her gender, her skin colour, or C-class mutant ability, it didn’t matter. She was still alive and most of her enemies were dead.

They found Wade bouncing on his feet outside the decontamination chamber. He was masked up, a grin indenting the reconstituted red fabric as they got close. “By the way,” Wade told her, “I think you told me a teeny white lie. This gear and the swords aren’t really mine-mine, are they?”

“You are very annoying,” Laura told him. She stood by the blast door, gritting her teeth.

“You’re right,” Bishop said, sounding apologetic. “We scanned what was left of your gear and printed replicas. The fabric and leather were rotted and your swords were rusty. Your new gear’s tougher. Won’t help you resist rads but it’s made of bulletproof fabric.”

“A gear upgrade. That’s how you know that this is a sequel,” Wade said brightly. Laura scowled. Maybe Wade didn’t understand how dangerous the mission was going to be. How could he? He’d only just woken up into the future. “I was hoping for a fashion upgrade along with the tactical stuff. Though I guess at least I didn’t do the Captain America thing and go from looking cool in my origin film to looking butt ugly in the ensemble film.”

“Do you ever shut up?” Laura snapped.

Wade smirked through the mask. “You ever have warm fuzzy feelings? Or is your dial permanently stuck on ‘murder’? I mean. I’ve got nothing against that. Some of my best friends had their dials permanently stuck on ‘murder’.”

“I think we should return him to the Nutella jar,” Laura told Bishop as he waved for technicians to open the decontamination chamber. “Put him back without his lower jaw.”

“So dark,” Wade said, pretending to shiver. “Ooh, you totally scare me, Laura Croft.”

“Laura,” Bishop warned as she growled.

With some difficulty, Laura swallowed her irritation. She had to do this. For New Eden. For the rest of the world. The chamber door opened with a dull electronic buzz. Laura stepped through and didn’t look back.

#

The Metal Apocalypse was weirdly warm. Wade prodded one of the coils the moment they’d gotten clear from Sundown, but it didn’t react. At the stroke of midnight, the coils had gone still. Teams of people in hazmat suits were filing past, hauling cases of equipment on floater carts. Bishop was also in a suit, a sleeker version with a glass helmet over body armour. Laura hadn’t bothered.

“What happens if we weren’t in a ‘window’?” Wade asked, curious. “Would it move the rating of this story to M for violence? Sex?”

Laura made a disgusted noise. Bishop merely huffed in amusement, walking down the passage. The bars of light on his suit lit up the corridor, as did the lights on Laura’s belt and on the carts trundling further down. “The infection affects people in different ways. It also depends on where you are. Closer to Ground Zero, it’s accelerated. On the outskirts, you can still survive with an infection for years,” Bishop said.

“So the alien infection thingy… was a sudden thing? Years back?” Wade jogged to keep up.

“It got this way years back, yes.” Bishop waved at the infection. “But it wasn’t new. The techno-organic virus has been around for a while. Earliest recorded cases were from eight decades back. Research facility in Mexico. Just that something happened years back that accelerated it. We don’t know what.”

Laura tensed but said nothing as she sped up to take point. Wade realized, a little belatedly, that she wasn’t armed. “Pocket Rocket over there doesn’t do guns?”

“Doesn’t need them,” Bishop said. He smiled.

“Secondary mutation?” That was unfair. Wade wished he had a secondary mutation. Something cool, like teleportation. Or shapeshifting. If Wade could turn into a bird he would’ve spent a few instructive afternoons pooping on the unsuspecting.

Bishop nodded. “Kinda. What about you?”

“I’ve only got the healing factor. So guns it is.” Wade patted the new pistols at his thighs.

They were heavier than what he was used to, but it was worth the haul. Wade had spent an extremely instructive couple of hours in target practice. Concussive blasts, pulsar shots, armour piercing rounds… he’d actually been entertained. Wade had felt guilty about it after, but he figured that if he was maybe about to join Ness for good, she wasn’t going to begrudge him some fun before the end.

“What was it like?” Bishop asked. “2018.”

“You guys don’t know?”

“Seen the historical vids. Hard to imagine. Clean water out of taps? So much food you could waste it?”

“Eh, large bits of it were already completely fucked. Dystopian, even. Just that the mass media only sees things as dystopian when it happens to white people.” Wade patted Bishop on the shoulder. “If I wasn’t here this story would’ve maybe only had the vanilla ‘Alternate Universe’ tag.”

Bishop chuckled. “That’s another part of the past nobody misses.”

“The Metal Apocalypse is a post-racism world?”

Laura snorted. Bishop shook his head. “In the Quarantine zones, kinda. Not many of us willing to tough it out in these parts. Outside the Quarantine zones, nah. Especially further out east. Guess some shit will never change.”

“Yeah well. When I chose to take my forever nap—which was meant to be forever, mind you—it was all already going to hell. Did I miss that much? Other than the Metal Apocalypse?” Wade asked.

“You missed a world war sparked off by an escalating trade war and the rise of far-right governments around the world, the conclusion of the sixth mass extinction, the water wars, and the rise of the Sentinel program,” Bishop said, counting it off by tapping his fingers against his gun.

Wade pulled a face. “Sounds like it was a jam-packed hundred years. Also, seriously, the Sentinels? Again? That’s like the most boring, tired Marvel plot device. They just trot that shit out when they’ve got nothing else to go on. Authoritarian robot regime. Meh. In my day, the US of A didn’t need giant robots to put kids into concentration camps.”

“Ugh. That’s right. 2018, yeah? ‘Round the start of when it all started going rapidly to hell. Beginning of the end of Western-style democracy.” Bishop paused when Laura came to a stop at an intersection. She looked left and right, sniffing, then turned right. The carts had gone left.

“In the future everyone’s communist?” Wade asked. That was disappointing.

“Nah.”

“Quiet now. Stay here,” Laura ordered. She darted further ahead on silent feet, moving out of sight around a bend in the corridor that was nearly fully webbed over with metallic strands. Eventually, she returned, still scowling. “All clear.”

“That’s actually your resting face. Fascinating,” Wade told her. Laura made a sharp gesture with her forearm and right palm that was probably rude and took point position again. “How far underground are we?” Wade asked, though he lowered his voice.

“From here? ‘Bout ten levels beneath the surface. We keep tunneling and the virus keeps finding us. Some of the other Quarantine zones are even deeper down,” Bishop said. He rapped a gloved hand against a coil that snaked against the wall beside his shoulder. “Doesn’t matter how much we dig. The infection’s relentless.”

“Turns people into xenomorphs?” Wade asked hopefully.

“Don’t know what that is. But yeah. It can manipulate organic material that it’s consumed. Or reconstitute itself into other things. It’s different every time, so I can’t give you an accurate gauge. Two of you are gonna have to find out for yourselves.”

Laura muttered something in Spanish. They turned down another corridor and reached a stairwell. Looking up past infested walls, Wade couldn’t even see the ceiling. Laura was already starting to climb up, stepping over steel veinwork over the concrete. “You guys built all this in the past few years?” Wade asked.

“Upper levels already existed. We built the lower levels with prefab tech. You can do a lot of construction remotely. Only way we can build the way we do. Problem is, it’s also why the infection builds the way it does, the closer you get above ground. It ate some of our prefabbers during the first year until we figured out how to make it stop eating our tech. The virus hates lead.”

“So why aren’t we going out with pencils strapped to our bodies?” That would’ve been a funny outfit.

“What are pencils?” Bishop asked.

Wade sighed. “Fuck narrative convenience.”

“Please quiet,” Laura hissed from much further up. There was a faint creaking sound as she pushed a door open. After another pause, Laura said, “Clear.”

The door opened out to a ledge and a dizzying drop, a vast chasm sliced into the world, sundering down two sheer cliffs of metal and concrete. It fed down into an impenetrable darkness. Above, some dim light from a source Wade could not see fed through a thick mesh of metal veinwork. Huge arteries of steel hung between the cliffs further down, vaguely visible in the gloom.

“Shh,” Laura shushed Wade as he opened his mouth. She pointed. Slung under the arteries were huge-ass metal spiders, hanging motionless over the sheer drop.

Fucking spiders. Wade hated spiders. Laura motioned for them to follow. They crept along the ledge, feeling their way along the concrete wall until Laura found a door inset along its flank. As she pulled the door open there was a loud creaking groan. She froze. Wade’s hands went to his holsters.

The spiders stayed still. Laura gave them a hard, assessing glance and slipped through the door. Another long corridor. Once Wade was pretty sure they were out of giant spider range, maybe, he said, “Is it all spiders?”

“Nah. Infection changes things up. I’ve seen giant centipedes,” Bishop said.

“Awesome.” Wade could do centipedes. It was spiders that he didn’t like. He was about to say as much when Laura came to a stop so suddenly that Wade walked right into her. “Hey, watch it—”

Laura clapped her hand over his mouth. Wade felt an ugly chill settle down his spine. Further down the corridor, standing in the middle of it, was a little brunette girl. She was pale and solemn, dressed in a white frock, holding a brown teddy bear. The little girl looked right past Laura and Wade, her eyes focused on Bishop with an unblinking stare.

“Shit,” Bishop whispered. “Thought I could go further.”

“The fuck is that? Ghosts? I didn’t sign up for a fucking remake of the Shining,” Wade hissed.

The little girl slowly raised her free hand, pointing at Bishop. He raised his palms, backing away. “Sorry Laura,” he said, though he looked grim. “This isn’t a good sign. If the Girl is so close to Sundown, the infection’s accelerated. It’s worse than we thought. Maybe—”

“You should go,” Laura said curtly. “Before she wakes the spiders.”

“I… yeah. Good luck.” Bishop looked reluctant.

“What about you?” Laura glanced at Wade. She sneered again. “Scared of ghosts?”

“Ghosts I can handle in general. Horror movies, sure. But little kid ghosts are fucked up.” Wade shuddered.

“Go away then.”

“Nah. Not gonna give you the satisfaction, possum.”

Laura sniffed loudly. She watched as Bishop nodded to them both and loped out of sight, then turned around. The little girl lowered her arm and vanished. “C’mon,” Laura said, starting to walk. “She might wake the spiders anyway to check the area. Those things will sense us.”

“Is this whole fucking place haunted?” Wade asked. He wasn’t sure what to think about that.

“Not normally here. Further in, yes.”

“Everyone who died?” This had been New York, right? That would’ve been a hell of a lot of ghosts. “Kinda wish I got you guys to print the Ghostbusters uniform. And their ghost vacuum machine.”

“There’s her. And the Lady. They don’t talk. The Lady is OK. She just stares. There’s also Dead Man, but he only lies on the floor and screams. The Girl’s the bad one. She angry.”

Wade thought this over. “Just three ghosts? Surely a lot more people died out here.”

“Just three that we know of.”

“Why didn’t they see us? Only Bishop?”

“Healing factor.”

“That makes no fucking sense. Or it makes complete Marvel sense. One or the other,” Wade said sourly.

“Many things we don’t know about virus.” Laura walked around a hole in the ground from which translucent cabling fed up into a wall bracket, dissolving against concrete.

The corridor ended in a thick morass of immovable cords that webbed up the rest of the way through. Solid blockage. Laura scowled. No way across. They backed off to the chasm room, where, Wade noted with a sinking feeling, the giant spiders were missing. Laura continued along the ledge as though it didn’t even faze her, looking around. She pointed. Across the thick artery where the spiders had been was a distant ledge, and another door. Wade mimed spiders crawling over his arm and Laura rolled her eyes.

Laura pressed a foot cautiously over the artery. When it took her weight without budging, she walked along it. Anger issues aside, the woman had nerves of steel. She didn’t even look down. Wade followed, trying not to think about huge-ass metal spiders as he walked. When they were nearly on the other side, he looked back over his shoulder and nearly fell off the artery.

Framed in the door to the dead-end corridor they’d come from was a man staring straight at Wade. He sported a neat side-shave and a torn scarf over body armour. Some kinda soldier, built compact and bulky. His eyes were two glowing pinpoints of light, and his face and throat were eaten by a seething mass of steel worms. Wade grabbed Laura’s shoulder and slowly drew a pistol. When she spun around with an angry stare, he pointed. She tensed, following his stare, then looked up at him, puzzled.

“You don’t see him?” Wade whispered. “Metal zombie?”

“No?”

Wade frowned down at Laura. He looked back. The zombie was gone. Another ghost? Wade and Laura scanned the area warily as they backed away to the new ledge. Nothing. “You normally see things that aren’t there?” Laura asked. She sniffed the air again and looked annoyed. “Nothing’s out there ‘far as I can sense.”

“Maybe it’s a new ghost?”

“Maybe.” Laura didn’t sound impressed. “Move.”

Chapter Text

“Stop touching that,” Laura said. They’d stopped for a lunch break on the edge of another chasm. This one was shallower, a couple of floors up from Sundown. The narrow valley below was dark with still water and floating debris.

Wade stopped petting the thick steel tendrils that fed out what had probably once been a drainage channel. “What? It’s sleeping.”

“It’s…” Laura trailed off with a grimace of disgust. “You wouldn’t do that if you’ve seen what it does to people. Without healing factors.”

“I saw the zombie guy. It was eating his face.”

Laura swallowed the cutting remark on the tip of her tongue. If the Girl was so close to Sundown, things had to be worse. And it wasn’t as though the virus hadn’t mutated before. Done things that it shouldn’t have. Maybe Wade had seen something. He had looked genuinely confused when whatever he’d seen hadn’t been there. His detailed description of ‘Zombie Guy’ had been a pretty accurate account of late-stage infection symptoms, and Wade would’ve never seen that before.

Or maybe he was more unstable than Laura had given him credit for. “Yeah. It does that. Consumes biomass, reprocesses it into all this shit.” Laura gestured at the ribbed steel aortas that ran over the metallic fleshwork on the opposite cliff.

“So the goal for this thing is to turn the world into Cybertron? Are the Decepticons behind this? I wouldn’t have thought so. We’ve come this far without a single lens flare or a giant explosion or a gratuitous carwash scene.”

“Don’t know who that is,” Laura said. She finished drinking her shot of protein slurry and packed the cartridge away. Wade was still drinking his, staring down at the water.

Wade eventually noticed her staring. “What? Something on my face?” His mask was pushed up to his nose. Under it, Wade’s skin was slowly starting to warp into a weird texture, like bad burn scars.

“Serum’s wearing off,” Laura said.

“Yeah. I figured. My little friend called ‘Chronic Pain’ came back from its vaycay with a light tan and a vengeance.”

“Bad?”

“I’m used to it.”

“Your…” Laura trailed off, flushing slightly. “Sorry.”

“No. Say it. You’re making me curious. Aww. You’re starting to feel bad? That’s cute.”

Laura scowled at him. “Your face. Not cancer.”

“Yeah, not in this continuity. Don’t know how the logic works, but in movieverse, I got tricked into a research lab which woke up my ‘latent’ mutation by parboiling me on all sides. The parboil effect strangely didn’t go away even after my powers combined and made me Captain Janet.”

Laura stiffened. “Research lab. Transigen?”

“No? I don’t know, actually. What’s that?”

“You kill people in the lab?”

“Yeah. Pretty thoroughly. That was fun.”

“Good,” Laura decided. She got to her feet. “Finish eating. We move.”

“What’s Transigen?” Wade obeyed, at least, capping off his portion and packing it away. He’d been watching how she’d done it.

“Company. Had research labs.”

“You were in one?”

“Born in one,” Laura said. She stretched, rubbing her back with a yawn.

“That explains a lot about your amazing personality. Did you kill them?”

“Eventually. Get up. We move.”

“Sec. Need to pee.”

Laura sighed. “Do it then. Hurry up.”

Wade actually looked aghast even with half his mask on. “While you’re right there?”

Laura looked around. “No side room nearby. Just pee down there.” She gestured at the trench far below. “What?” she asked impatiently, when Wade said nothing. “What’s the problem? I’ve seen a dick before. Not gonna be a shock. Or. You want me to turn around? What, you shy? It’s just a dick.”

“…Actually, I think I’ll just opt to have my bladder implode,” Wade said faintly.

“Whatever.” Laura started walking. Wade caught up with her when she came to the end of the ledge. Metal webwork was folded around a stone structure skewed at a sloped angle, as though it had sunk down through melting earth on one flank. Displaced brickwork had filled the trench below, along with part of a shattered stone pillar.

“Huh.” Wade stepped around Laura and peered at one of the vast cloudy glass windows, then down at the pillar below. He squeezed through a large gap in the veins and glanced up through the cradled structure. Something further within creaked, a structural warning. “I know this building. It’s the Met. What. The ass. Is this place Central Park? Where are the trees? How did this get so different in a hundred years?”

“No more trees,” Laura said curtly. She squeezed through as well, sniffing. The air was cleaner here. There was still a way up somewhere. She started to climb, swarming up over broken stone, trying to avoid touching the infection.

Wade had no such compunctions. He climbed up over the arteries and segmented struts, keeping pace beside her. “This is some Inception shit. So. Cool.”

Laura bit back her retort just in time. She grit her teeth hard enough that her jaw ached. It grew pitch dark as they climbed, the light bars on their suits blinking back on. They made steady progress up the sloped stone to reach a large window that wasn’t completely blocked over by steel strands. As she climbed up to it, Wade said, “Haven’t you watched horror movies before? Is that still a thing?”

“What?”

“Isn’t this empty window suspiciously open? The glass is conveniently missing even.”

Laura braced herself against the sill and peeled up part of the heavy silver tape under the dust, revealing a dark gray line. She rubbed the tape back down. “Lead wiring. This is alternate way up,” Laura said impatiently. She pointed up. “Many ways up to surface. Sundown maintains.”

“Oh. So this wasn’t a random route chosen just to be cinematic,” Wade said. He covered her without asking as Laura peeked through and looked around, sniffing. Nothing but dust and metal. She slipped in and fell into a crouch. The bars on her suit lit up a cavernous room, the great vaulted hall cleaved into uneven sections held together by great tendons as thick as Laura was tall. Large blocky sculptures of vaguely human shapes encased in stone were suspended from the ceiling with cabling. One had fallen, shattering into phantasmagoric pieces now covered in dust.

Wade climbed in as Laura gestured, darting an assessing glance around the chamber. “Wow. This place has seen way better days. I don’t even. How many levels are we down from the surface?”

“Five. It should still lead all the way through to the top.”

“I can’t even imagine that. This place used to be on a park. On the surface. Of New York. Bishop showed me some footage of the city even. It didn’t look so bad.”

“Some parts. Outskirts. Near Ground Zero, it’s bad. Satellite image doesn’t work there.”

“‘Last Days of Pax Americana.’ Big mood.” Wade read out one of the faded banners on a wall, pausing briefly to let the lights installed into his reprinted suit brighten up the print. He was staying close for all his chatter, constantly casing the room as they walked. The fact that Wade was obviously military trained was a relief, annoying as he was. “Where is Ground Zero? Statue of Liberty? Wouldn’t put it beyond comic book writers.”

“Not Statue. West. Past Union City.”

“That’s not fun. I was hoping to get one up on that terrible X-Men film which had the Statue of Liberty, whatever it was, the one with a kid who didn’t really look like Rogue. Probably best left forgotten, even if it had Wolverine in black leather.”

Laura looked sharply at Wade. “Wolverine?”

“Canadian mutant. Probably before your time, though I never know nowadays, since Marvel’s so in love with ridiculous plot devices like clones and time travel and alternate universes. Meant to be short but I think in this ‘verse he’s not. Has a healing factor. His secondary mutation is being part of every superhero team known to mutantkind.”

Did Wade mean…? Laura was about to ask, but a faint scraping sound from the upper levels made her flatten quickly back against the wall. Wade took cover behind an archway. Laura couldn’t see the second floor with just suit lights. Another scrape, closer this time. Slanting against the wall. Laura took in a slow breath.

A dark blue spotlight beamed down from the wall, starting a sweep of the ground floor. Spider. It was crouched over the pillar, bracing itself against the mezzanine floor with its multi-jointed back legs. Its podlike main body was fitted with the searchlight and a hidden nozzle that could spit flesh-melting acid at thirty paces. The legs ended in sharp spikes that would’ve come up to Laura’s shoulder.

Laura looked around. No other spiders, or there would be other spotlights. Laura glanced over to Wade, about to motion him to keep moving. He wasn’t where he had been hiding. Where the hell…? Laura stayed still, unsure. Should she look for Wade or—

“Not gonna lie. I kinda love the apocalypse.”

Wade. He had climbed up the sculpture closest to the spider without Laura even noticing. Holstered his guns. As the spider backed up, the spotlight tracking up to Wade’s voice, he jumped, plucking his blades from their sheaths. Shit! Laura started to sprint across the floor. Wade landed on the spider’s back, using his weight to drive his blades through the spotlight and into the Critter’s torso. There was a rending electronic screech that echoed down the shattered building. The spider slid down the wall with an echoing crash and Wade rode it down, hopping off at the last moment.

“The fuck is wrong with you?” Laura snapped.

Wade jerked his blades free of the Critter’s body and inspected them. “You said they could sense us so I took some initiative. Non-lethal playthroughs are really not my style. Stealth is boring.”

“The other spiders will be coming here next, cabrón.” Laura started to walk around Wade. She froze as the Girl was abruptly there, standing by the spider’s body. The ghost looked around, her blank eyes tracking past them. Then she vanished, reappearing next to the open sill. Laura held her breath. Two. Three. The Girl disappeared.

“Fuck. Me.” Wade whispered. “I’m never gonna get used to that.”

Laura swallowed the tirade that tried to force itself out of her throat. “Good job, asshole. Now we have to run.”

#

They surfaced over Hell’s Kitchen, which was unrecognisable. Wade peeked over the artery-choked apartment blocks and waited for Laura to run out of breath. When she finally stopped cursing him out in Spanish, Wade said, “Look on the bright side—”

Laura snarled something venomous at him and bent, hands pressed over her knees, breathing hard. It was getting dark. Even with New York covered in the metalocalypse, it felt weird that the city was so quiet. No traffic, no chatter, nothing. Lights out everywhere, even as the sun started to set past a skyline contorted into a vaguely organic-looking supermass.

“Now we can’t go back through museum,” Laura said, when she had calmed fractionally down.

“We also killed lots of spiders.” In the dark, it was hard to see what Laura’s secondary mutation had been since she was lagging behind him and spiders were trying to eat his face. Super-strength, maybe.

“You don’t understand! Each time you kill Critter, you trip an alarm.”

“Does it matter? That freaky-ass little girl can’t see us.”

“She’s part of the infection. She maybe no’ see us, but she—it—knows something’s wrong. Send more Critters to the contact point. Until too many. Now no easy way back. Fuck!” Laura spat out another torrent of Spanish invective, then she sucked in a deep breath. “Safehouse in Hell’s kitchen. We cross river in the morning. Try to get to Ground Zero before tomorrow night.”

Getting to the safehouse involved a lot of rappelling down along the outside of buildings and walking over arteries to interlinked blocks. Many windows were opaque or choked with viral superstructure. Street level either existed as a deep chasm or in a river of interlocked metallic strands, studded with twisted gleaming spines.

It was dark by the time they climbed up to a concrete roof that overlooked what was left of the Hudson River. A solid block sat on most of the roof, a rectangular white mass with a single door. No windows. Laura walked up to the door and pressed her palm to the panel. There was a faint click, and the door slid open to a dark interior. She walked in, flicking a light switch to reveal a sparse space lined with racks of supplies.

Wade paused outside the door. “What happens after dark?”

“During a window, not so bad. If you turn off suit lights and don’t get spotted. Why?” Laura asked, wary.

“It’s the Apocalypse. I just want to sit out here for a bit. Take it all in. No lights. I’ll stay close by.”

“Fine. You get in trouble? I won’t save your ass. Once you’re ready to come in put your hand here. Safehouse lets in anyone who isn’t infected.” Laura stalked away into the safehouse before Wade could say anything else. The door closed.

Wade let out a slow breath. Turned around and walked around the roof access. The door was ajar, thrust open a fraction quiescent tendrils. Wade leaned against the brick out of sight of the safehouse and folded his arms. “Okay, asshole. You’ve been stalking us all day. Let’s talk,” he said.

Zombie Guy wasn’t there, then he was, standing a few feet away. Wade took a few cautious steps over. Zombie Guy didn’t move, but his laser pointer eyes tracked Wade’s movement in silence. Hoping that he wasn’t about to set off another spider alarm, Wade cautiously reached out. Wade’s hand pushed through the air, right through Zombie Guy’s shoulder, then up through the twisting coils in his throat.

Wade wiggled his fingers. “Are you really a ghost? I thought there’d be more… ectoplasm.” He swiped his hand experimentally through Zombie Guy’s torso.

Zombie Guy stared at him. “Who are you?”

“Jesus!” Wade flinched back.

Zombie Guy’s lips hadn’t moved, but the voice had come out of nowhere. “I can’t really see you. But I know you’re there.”

“Uh huh. So where are the spiders? By the way, I’m kinda disappointed that you went with spiders and centipedes. If I had to make end-of-the-world critters, I would’ve gone with the zombies in the Last of Us. Or xenomorphs. Or the berserkers from Gears of War,” Wade said. Not that the Metalocalypse wasn’t cool, but it could be cooler, just saying.

“The Critters aren’t mine. Who are you?”

“That’s a really existential question. You first.”

Zombie Guy stared for a long moment, then he looked to the side. “I… think my name was. Nate. I was called Nate.”

“Seriously? That’s a real boring name for someone who looks like an escapee from Resident Evil.”

Nate cracked a faint, humourless smile. “You’re not afraid.”

“You’re not that scary,” Wade said. He nearly said that he was pretty sure Laura wasn’t afraid either, but swallowed it just in time. If the Nate Ghost could sense Wade but not Laura, that was probably a good thing. Someone was under the radar. “I'm Wade. By the way, how’d you know I’m here? I thought people with healing factors are immune to your shit.”

“Your minds don’t trip its sensors. But I know you’re there. The powers it stole were mine in the first place.”

“It? You mean the angry little girl?”

Anguish briefly twisted Nate’s face, the steel worms moving in ugly ripples under his scarf and what was visible of his shirt under his armour. “Why are you here?” Nate asked.

“We’re trialing a new pizza delivery service. Very exclusive. I know what you’re thinking. We could maybe be more diverse, it’s 2118 and all that. Bring it up with the scriptwriters. I mean, what even is all this. We’re two white guys talking on a roof in New York.”

Nate shook his head. “Take your friend and leave. The virus is close to achieving its goal. Then nobody in the world will be safe.”

“Isn’t that a good argument against us leaving?” Wade asked. When Nate merely stared instead of answering, Wade tried a different tack. “What’s up with this ‘window’ business anyway? Why does the virus go quiet?”

Nate exhaled. “It would’ve been her birthday,” he whispered, and vanished.

“Who?”

No answer. Wade waited for a bit, then retreated to the safehouse. Laura had her feet up on the table in a corner, slowly drinking a protein pack. She jerked her thumb at the corner of the safehouse. “There’s a bathroom and a sonic shower. Not gonna help you with either. Hope you figured it out in Sundown.”

Showers were nice and efficient in the future. Waterless. You didn’t even need to strip down. Wade went through the motions and sat down on the lower bunk on a row of beds, uncapping a pack for his own dinner. “This is a really depressing thing to eat,” Wade said.

“Suck it up.”

“That’s literally part of the problem. My stomach doesn’t register it as food.”

“I’ve eaten worse.”

“Yeah? What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?” Wade asked, curious.

Laura grunted. “Healing factor means no stomachaches. I’ve eaten days’ old roadkill. Was hungry enough to at the time. You?”

“Duck fetuses.”

Laura’s gaze snapped up. “What the fuck?”

“It was an actual thing that some people liked to eat in that bit of the world. I don’t judge. Kinda liked it.”

“…Sure.” Laura looked unconvinced. “Okay. 2018 sounds wild.”

“It was getting wilder when I decided to check out. I mean, the last thing I remember about my timeline was the news talking about the USA withdrawing from the Human Rights Council. Talk about dark timelines,” Wade said, leaning back against the wall. “That’s the sad futility of modern superhero stories. There’s so much institutionalised cruelty in the world and you’ve got to sell audiences on a story where it’s morally OK for Tony Stark to only get off his shiny ass for a supervillain.”

Laura narrowed her eyes. She sank deeper into her chair, drinking quietly for a while. “My father said that. He say, most of the stories about heroes like the X-Men were made up. Didn’t happen like the comics.”

“Yeah, sounds about right.”

“So the X-Men. Adventures all not real?”

“Oh, they were real. The X-Men also had really good PR. Always tended to come out tops despite some of the shit they got up to. In a not-so-alternate timeline, I think they actually assisted in the transfer of an abused minor to an adult maximum security prison. I mean, reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline with a troubled Māori kid? Not a good look for anyone else. Amazing what X-Fans would forgive. Or not even notice.”

Laura looked up, her expression tight. “The X-Men were bad?”

“They’re the most public face of a segregated school for kids who didn’t have enough trained adult supervision,” Wade said cheerfully. “Cool plane though.”

“Did you know L…” Laura trailed off. “Never mind. Sleep. We leave at dawn.”

Chapter Text

“Okay, I’m finally seriously impressed,” Wade said. In the slow-dawning light of the morning, the infected river steamed gently over vast cylinders that churned within the water. Arteries fed directly into the waterways from all directions. From the vantage point, this made the Hudson River look like a slick open wound, marred by blackened scar tissue at the seams.

“By what?” Laura asked, distracted. The topography of the river had shifted dramatically since the last time she’d been down this route. The great arteries that bridged New York to Union City were gone.

“Well, not that the whole Metro 2033 vibe was unimpressive, but there’s nothing for standing up here in the light and seeing the full scale of all this shit.” Wade actually sounded weirdly gleeful.

Laura knew better. Last night she’d been startled awake by the sound of Wade crying in his sleep. Begging someone to forgive him. Whatever had caused Wade to try so hard to kill himself—to achieve the nearest thing to death for someone with his powers… Laura could guess. She had long lost everyone she had loved when she was young. To the wars, to illnesses, to age. Time had never made loss easier to bear for Laura. There was no forgetting.

“You’re quiet,” Wade said, as they reached an impassable gap between blocks and started to climb down to ground level.

“Normal way across missing. I’m thinking.”

“There are tunnels, if those haven’t been fucked over.”

“What tunnel?”

“The Lincoln Tunnels? Uh, probably southwest from here? For cars and stuff to get to Union City?”

“Why cars need to go underwater?” Laura asked, puzzled for a moment before she belatedly remembered. Wade was from 2018. Wasn’t that far behind the year Laura had been born. Cars were still earthbound then. “Ah. Cars now fly.”

“So why can’t we just fly over to Ground Zero and parachute down?”

Laura shook her head. “Anything flying over gets shot down. Missile banks taken over.”

“Well that’s convenient. Anyway, there might be a way through the tunnels? Or we could go all the way back down underground. Where we were was probably deeper than the river.”

“Try tunnel first.” Deep underground was a trap for the unwary, especially on territory that wasn’t surveyed. At least from the rooftops, on top of the labyrinth, the way forward was easier to see.

“Or we would swim across.”

Laura shook her head. “Water is electrified.” She dropped down quietly onto steel-cracked asphalt, sniffing the air. So far so good. “You lead.”

Wade took a moment to orient himself, then he started to walk down the street, ducking under tendrils. The road was warm under Laura’s feet. Hopefully, it wouldn’t get hotter this close to the coolant farm in the river. “What’s it even doing in the river?” Wade asked.

“Reducing heat. Global warming. Major cities are hot. Things can melt. Infected cities even warmer. Virus uses water to manufacture coolants for itself. It doesn't like extreme temps.”

“So whatever it’s doing generates a lot of heat,” Wade said.

“Yes?”

“You guys still have satellite tech that can look at heat maps? Globally?”

“Why?”

“Maybe it’s up to something,” Wade said, going around a forest of thick spikes that feathered up into nearby blocks. “Maybe it’s worsening real fast for a reason.”

“It’s a disease. Diseases worsen.” Laura scowled at Wade. “You woke up in this new world only a few days ago. Fully awake only for two. Many scientists already looking at problem. Leave the theories to them.”

“How many of those scientists actually got this close to Ground Zero?” Wade asked. He peered past metal webbing at dark storefronts. “Man. There used to be a great bodega near here. Great milkshakes. Nice to see that retail resisted to the bitter end though.”

Laura tuned out Wade’s chatter, keeping an ear out for sounds beyond the slow creaks and groans of the dead city, of the humming purr from the river a block beyond. She tensed as Wade abruptly crossed the street before her, but he was only looking at a tendril-choked vending station, its product screens long gone dark. Laura sighed as Wade kicked it. “Probably looted,” she told him, then flinched as he drew a sword and stabbed it through the bioscan panel. The machine made an ugly whirring sound and coughed out three colourful cans.

Wade pocketed one and tossed the second to Laura. He checked the label and tugged up his mask. “Of course the soft drink at the end of the world is Coca-Cola. Yeah, that’s right. Selling out at the very end with this delicious product placement.” He pressed at the top and frowned. “Where’s the tab?”

“Biodegradable packaging now. No more waste. Put your mouth to the top. Interacts with human saliva.” Laura pressed her mouth to the edge of the tin, which dissolved on contact. The fizzy soda was far too sweet and ate at her tongue. Laura couldn't recall the last time she’d had a soda. Or the last time she’d had something that wasn’t a protein slurry. It was better than she remembered.

“Jesus this is messy.” Wade had awkwardly dissolved more of the tin than he should’ve. Excess soda was dribbling over his glove. He grinned at her. “Good huh? I mean, I know this shit can dissolve nails, but there’s nothing like it.”

“Company is water-hungry. Steal water from people. One of causes of water wars.”

“Is everything grimdark in this timeline?”

Laura snorted. “Big company hoard resources from communities, nothing new. Not even in your time.” She finished the tin and pocketed it. With the interior now exposed to the open air, the tin would biodegrade into water within days. Drinkable for someone with a healing factor.

“Someone’s a regular historian.”

“No historian. Your time, not too far from when I was born. One, two years before.”

“What?” Wade turned to stare at her. “You look. Really good? For your age?”

“You don’t know?” Laura frowned at him. “Healing factor. You no’ age.”

Wade glanced away, letting out a harsh breath. “So we really can’t die, huh.”

“No.”

“You ever…” Wade trailed off uncomfortably.

“Try to end it all? No. It’s hard,” Laura said quietly, “losing people. I know. When it’s your fault? Worse. You ask God, why? Why do good people die while I stay young and live forever?”

Wade finished his can and pocketed it as well. Pulled his mask back down. “Ever got an answer?”

“I think you need to find your own answer. I found mine. People need me. So I live. For them. I want to live for the still-living. Rather than die for those already dead. Immortality is God’s joke, a curse disguised as a gift. I want to spite God by making the most of it.”

Wade went quiet. They picked their way south in silence. Above, the wind sang a death rattle through tendrils and veins, its breath too-warm against their cheeks.

#

“You pass out for a hundred years and everything goes to hell,” Wade said.

They were crouched behind thick pylons rising out of the road. just outside the cavernous entrances to the Lincoln Tunnels. ‘No Entry’ signs were fixed below faded boarding advertising a ‘New Retail Space—Coming Soon!’ printed in huge letters pockmarked by infection strands. Through one large hole in the boarding, Wade could see that the tunnel beyond was bisected by lines of blue light that swept restlessly from side to side.

Laura squared her shoulders. “No other way through. If we have to fight our way out, use two doses.” She pointed at the carefully padded pouch on Wade’s belt where his share of the serum was packed and mimed injecting her arm. “Then you run. Don’t worry about me. Get clear and I’ll catch up.”

Wade tried not to look at the space beside the central tunnel. Nate was leaning against the broken boarding, his arms folded. A warning? Or just an observer? “I’ll race you. Last one to the end has to undergo therapy.”

Laura let out a startled laugh, frowned, and shook her head, though a smile kept curling at the edges of her mouth. She clapped Wade on the shoulder and peeked through the boarding at each tunnel. “All same. You pick.”

“Centre.” Wade glanced at Nate, who stared back without a word. “I have a feeling about that one.”

“Right.” Laura walked over to the broken boarding beside Nate, looking through into the lights beyond. Then she shot a smirk back over her shoulder at Wade. “Eat my dust, cabrón.” With that, she darted through.

“Hey!” Wade scrambled in. The closest spider was hanging off the flank of the tunnel, its spotlight scanning from left to right. Instead of ducking around it, Laura charged. She leaped up a filament, bounded to another, and flexed her wrists. Long metallic claws slid out from her knuckles, two on each arm. She jumped. Claws sheared easily through the spotlight like Laura was cutting butter. Laura leaped free in a high arc, twisting, tossing something behind her through the door. It was the Coca-Cola can.

The Girl flickered into view as the spider crashed down onto the walkway. She reappeared at the boarding as the can clattered outside. An electronic klaxon echoed down the tunnel as Laura landed quietly on the road and sprinted past metal strands to the other side. Spiders swarmed past, clacking loudly over the ceiling and wall, over the newly-wrecked body. They burst through the boarding, scattering outside.

Laura grinned at Wade and started to run. “What happened to sneaky mode?” he whispered as he fell in beside her.

“No way we get through without tripping sensors.”

“And the claws? You’re Logan’s daughter? Niece? Distant cousin?”

“Daughter. Technically. Genetically engineered with donor DNA,” Laura conceded, ducking under a segment.

“What the fuck. Are there no normal babies in Marvelverse? Also, that explains so much about you.”

Laura rolled her eyes. “Keep up, old man.”

Who’s old?” Wade said, indignant. Laura smirked, sprinting ahead—she could really put on speed for someone nearing a century of life. She leaped over a pylon and skidded over the remains of a vehicle. Wade swore under his breath and tried to keep up.

His lungs were starting to burn when there was a distant klaxon far behind them. Ahead, Laura cursed. She vaulted a pile of debris on the ground, dodging pylons. The only light in the tunnel was from their suits. Laura was sprinting close to a hill of rotting boxes and abandoned vehicles when Nate appeared right above it, looking over at Wade as he pointed down. The lights on Laura’s clothes lit shadows against jointed lines mostly buried under canvas.

Ah, fuck.

Wade palmed and injected a couple of doses of serum into his arm. The ache in his lungs faded. Wade sprinted along the walkway even as Laura started to pass the piled canvas. She must have tripped something. Come too close. The monster uncoiled from the canvas in pillars of dust and debris, its ridged spine brushing the concrete ceiling. It was legless, suspended from the walls and roof by great pylons-turned-relays that embedded themselves into its segmented flanks. Wade made a running jump, landing awkwardly against one flank and scrambling up its gnarled surface even as a minigun spun out of the segment close by, taking aim at Laura. He jammed a blade into it and wrenched. Something inside exploded, rocking the monster to a side. It shrieked, the shredded electronic howl rocketing echoes down the tunnel and making Wade flinch.

The Girl appeared, floating next to the tunnel. She started to point at Wade. Just as she raised her hand and Wade prepared to dive off onto the ground, Nate reappeared right in front of Wade, blocking him from view. His hands were clenched into fists. The Girl vanished.

“Fucking run!” Laura yelled at him from the ground. Right. Wade sprinted along the monster’s back. Laura was injecting herself with serum. She leaped up to the walkway, severing pylons as she went with quick swipes. Wade copied her, slicing through what he could reach as he ran. The spiders were closing in, blue beacons chasing Wade’s shadow.

A subterranean groan from the ceiling was all the warning Wade got that Laura’s plan had worked. Cracks fed up along the concrete. The end of the worm monster collapsed into the debris below with a towering crash, writhing as it crushed spider-creatures underneath. The weakening roof started to cave in, unspooling ropy coils of infection that smashed down into the spider horde, over the still twisting worm-thing.

Under Wade’s feet, the segments shuddered. Wade slid precariously and scrambled to keep his footing. He jumped, trying to get back to the walkway, but landed badly with a rib-shattering crack against the safety rails. He slid down onto the road below with a yelp. Somewhere through the dust and skeins of blue light, Laura shouted a warning. Wade somehow managed to fold himself up against the floor and the wall as the world came down all around him.

#

“Wade. Wade.”

Wade groaned blearily. “Five more minutes, Ness.”

“Wade. Wake the fuck up. C’mon, asshole. You made it this far. Fucking wake up!

Wade opened his eyes. His left leg hurt from the knee down in a bright flare of familiar pain. Shit. He was pinned under a big pylon, leg crushed to meat. Everything else hurt in a numb way that told Wade it wasn’t too serious. Nate was crouched in the small space between the worm and the wall, within arm’s reach.

“Ah hell. I hate reenacting the plot of ‘Saw’,” Wade muttered. “It’s way too much like jointing a chicken. Puts me off KFC for days.”

Nate’s infection-ridden face twisted into a brief chain of disgust and amusement. He watched as Wade nudged a katana over and did the deed. Three more serum shots left. Wade could already feel his severed bone and flesh starting to grow out. He gave himself a third shot for luck and waited.

“Shouldn’t take that many of those all at once,” Nate said.

“I’ve survived worse.”

“How many more shots have you got?”

Wade checked. “Two.”

“Keep ‘em. They don’t make many of those anymore.”

“Why’re you helping me?” Wade asked, curious. He levered himself carefully up onto a foot, using a katana as a walking stick.

Nate didn’t answer for a while. When he did, his voice was soft. “You… remind me of someone.”

“Really? I don’t think I know any short Michael Shannons. Now or in the future.”

Nate frowned. He disappeared, reappearing further up along the wall. Suit lights indicated a service door beside Nate, partly obscured under rotting boarding. With a lot of cursing, Wade sheathed his blades and somehow managed to climb up, hauling himself to the walkway using segments and veins and praying to Cthulhu that no worms/little girls/spiders would show up. He was sweating by the time he lay on his belly on the walkway, cursing hoarsely.

“All right?” Nate asked.

Wade flipped him off, then raised his leg for a peek. Still regrowing. Fuck. “By the way, if I had to have a Cortana-ish guide for the future, I should at least have gotten Masterchief armour. And Actual!Cortana. Pre or post boob-enlargement. Why’d I have to get you?”

“Lucky, I guess,” Nate said. He ‘sounded’ pensive, even with his out-of-nowhere voice. Wade eventually clawed himself upright and pushed away the boarding. He had to put his shoulder to the door to get it open, and fell flat on his face once it gave.

“Ow,” Wade muttered indistinctly. He straightened his broken nose and got up again. Limped into the gloom with a katana and the wall for support. Not a lot of infection in the service corridor, at least.

“You’re not from this time,” Nate said, reappearing further down the tunnel.

“Wow, what gave that away? My pre-apocalyptic perkiness?”

“Your references. The last Halo game was made when I was a kid. Nearly half a century ago.”

“Seriously? What happened, a nuclear strike on Microsoft?” Wade asked. Huh. That was unexpected. “I thought there was nothing certain in life but death, taxes, and money-printing sequels.”

“The games industry became extremely regulated in the USA. Was blamed for the rampant gun violence.”

“That was a thing even in my time, but I thought the megabucks that it was making would’ve insulated it from the NRA bullshit.”

Nate shrugged. “Before the infection, the NRA had already long merged with the ruling coalition. Inextricable mesh of church, government, and big money lobby groups. Everybody bought and sold.”

“Well, that’s depressing. What happened to the Democrats?” Wade asked.

“Lost in 2018. Lost in 2020. Party fragmented. Infighting. Never recovered. Republicans pivoted from Muslims to mutants after the wars. Led to the Sentinel program. Kinda ironic,” Nate said reflectively, as Wade got close and he reappeared further down the corridor again. “All their fearmongering about mutants kinda came true. Just not in the way they predicted.”

“What do you mean? Isn’t this an alien virus?”

Nate started to answer, then he went still and held up a finger to his lips. Wade froze against the wall. Waited. A faint clicking sound was passing somewhere overhead. Paused. Clicked on for a few heartbeats. Paused. Wade breathed as slowly as he could. He felt like he could hear his own heartbeat, the blood pumping in his ears. Whatever it was moved on. Wade kept limping.

“You know, I don’t blame the little girl for being pissed off as all hell,” Wade said, as they kept moving. “She died at what, five, six years old? Never got to grow older. Learn what it’s like to get wasted. Have sex. Meet someone and fall in love. Or not, if that’s not her thing. She never got the chance to figure all that out though.”

“The virus wasn’t what killed…” Nate trailed off, frowning, as though trying to recall something.

“What I’m wondering is why there aren’t more angry kids out there. This virus thingy killed millions of people, right? Assuming the population hasn’t dropped sharply since I was last awake. Must have killed millions of kids. Families. Whatever or whoever sparked all this shit off probably killed way more people than all the World Wars combined. So why aren’t there more ghosts?”

“That’s why you’re going to Ground Zero?” Nate asked. He looked sober. “Revenge?”

“Nah. Laura’s the one who wants to stop all this shit before it spreads and eats everyone in this part of the world. Me, I’m just along for the ride. This is some premium Metro: Last Light immersive content.”

Nate disappeared. Huh. Was it something Wade said? Maybe not everyone was a fan of Last Light. He limped along, trying to keep an ear out. By the time he found a service door that wasn’t webbed over with metal filaments, his leg had grown nearly all the way back. He opened the door, peeking out slowly. There was boarding not far to his left, with a conspicuously clawed-open exit and sunlight streaming in. Laura had made it out. Relieved, Wade stepped out.

The spider dropped from the ceiling onto his back, legs spearing through his chest into the concrete. Wade yelled, groping for his pistols, even as the spider slowly eased a free leg back, ready to shear off his head—

It went still with a grinding sound. Wade writhed, gasping in pain and panic. He groaned as Laura hopped quietly off the spider’s back and landed beside him. She sliced through the legs pinning him down, then helped Wade haul the fragments through his chest.

“Wow. I could hug you,” Wade said, still breathing hard as Laura helped him up to his feet.

Laura pulled a face. “No hug.”

“Didn’t think you’d come back for me, honestly.”

“Didn’t think you’d make it. I was about to move on,” Laura said, though she looked evasive. Her clothes were caked with dust, her hands blackened to the elbows, as though she’d been digging through debris. “Was checking further down. Didn’t see that spider.”

Wade grinned. “Aww. You were worried. C’mon. Let’s hug it out.”

“You touch me and I will take your balls, culero. Move. Not much light left.”

Chapter Text

They made it to the second safehouse with barely any light to spare. Exhausted, they took turns using the bathroom and the sonic shower without a word. Neither of them had eaten all day save for breakfast. Hunger for Laura had always been an unwelcome reminder of the essential cruelty of her primary mutation.

Immortality, with mortal flaws. An eternity slaved to the demands of her never-aging body. Exhaustion, hunger, thirst. And, the most annoying of all—an eternity of periods and period cramps. At least the end of the world had finally improved tampon and birth control tech, but Laura still spent a few days per month in a foul mood, and she could sense that coming on soon.

The safehouse right before Ground Zero was new and sparse. Nothing on the supply racks, basic furniture—just the bunks. Wade and Laura sat on top of the prefab safehouse without suit lights and drank protein packs with their legs dangling over the side. It was a cloudless night, bright with stars.

“So that’s Ground Zero?” Wade asked, gesturing ahead. Past the highway the infection sprawled over the remains of old warehousing and industrial complexes in a sea of gigantic pylons and coils.

“Edge of it. Scientists think centre of Ground Zero was Terminus. Over there.” Laura pointed to the southwest. “Freight hub once. And storage.”

“The Internodal Terminal?”

“Old name, new name, I don’t know. Until infection I’ve never been here. New York.”

“Never ever?” Wade sounded surprised.

“Danger.”

“Really? I mean, in my time, New York’s probably one of the most left-wing, treehugger, ‘coastal elite’ kinda sanctuary city. Not saying that racism and anti-mutant sentiment doesn’t exist, but—”

Laura shrugged. “Grew up running settlement. Very busy. Then many things change. Wars. Sentinel program.”

“This story is a little on the nose, isn’t it?” Wade said out aloud, though he grinned, his mask hiked up over his nose. “Illegal Mexican lady migrant saves the day?”

“Day not saved yet,” Laura said, sipping her ration pack to draw it out. “What’s your story? How’d you end up here?”

Wade told her. It was a rambling story full of random anecdotes that Laura didn’t understand, and given how Wade often doubled back she wasn’t sure which parts were entirely true, or which parts Wade still thought were true. Laura let him talk. It was an apology of sorts, in her way. Wade deserved that much.

“You’re sure that Ness wants you to die?” Laura asked, trying to sound gentle. She hadn’t really understood Wade’s vague description of the Room, or the Invisible Wall, any of it. She did understand guilt. And being haunted by people she couldn’t save.

Wade stared up at the stars. “Been keeping her waiting, haven’t I?”

“Maybe she no’ want you to die. Or why she stay away?”

“I thought maybe if I got enough serum, healed my face…” Wade trailed off.

Laura let out a snort. “And? This woman, she was with you before and after your face changed. Why would something like that make a difference? Let the dead go. Living hurts. I know it does. Somedays you think nobody’s gonna miss you. That you should lie down and sleep forever. But you’re always gonna be wrong.”

“Yeah?” Wade said, pensive. “Who’s gonna miss me now?”

“Bishop liked you. The guns on your hips are his. And. Look. You not so bad.”

“Aww, you actually said something nice to me. I’m gonna remember this forever.” Wade didn’t smile, though. His fingertips tapped unsteadily on his pack.

“You’ve got to decide for yourself. How you move on. Start with the small things if that makes it easier.”

“Or a big thing, like saving the world,” Wade said. This time he cracked a wan smile.

“Yeah. Or a big thing. You feel you should die ‘cos she die because of you? I know what that’s like. But I know, if I die, nothing changes. I’ll never make things right ‘cos I never gave myself the chance.” Laura patted Wade on the shoulder. “Give yourself a chance. Think about it.”

Wade was quiet as they finished their second ration packs. They lay on their backs to watch the stars as the dead city grew quiet and dark. “What’s your story?” Wade asked then, hands folded over his chest.

“Got a century of it. Too much to tell.” Laura glanced at Wade briefly, then back up at the starts. “Maybe after all this, I’ll tell you. Over drinks. Lots of drinks.”

“You’re on.”

“Did you… know Logan?” Laura asked tentatively.

“In this continuity? Uhh. We’ve met, I think? Not really clear. I mean, we’re both Canadians with healing factors. You’d think we should be best buds. Though I think it’s canon that I fondled his balls.”

“Can you not.”

“Hey, you should be proud. Your father’s only the most popular X-Man of all time. Maybe the most popular Marvel character ever, even. He has some big, heavy, furry, extremely valuable balls. I’m honoured that I got a feel.”

Despite herself, Laura started to laugh, shaking her head. “You. Are the worst.”

“And you should be mad. I like you more than Logan but he’s more popular than you are. Hell, I’m pretty sure I’m more popular than you are.” Wade patted Laura on her shoulder and Laura let him. She’d nearly flinched away. Withdrawn like she normally did. A hundred years had taught her one major lesson—don’t get attached. Losing friends could hurt worse than a knife in the gut.

She smirked instead. “Why care about ‘popular’? I care about ’better’. And I will kick your ass any day, culero. We already one-zero.”

“One-zero on what?”

“You lose tunnel race.”

“Because the ceiling fell on me!”

“Still lose,” Laura said. She got to her feet, stretching and rubbing her back. Wade glowered at her, but he followed her as they scanned themselves into the safehouse.

“Yeah, well, best of three. Whoever gets the most kills on the way through Ground Zero. And whoever kills the Xenomorph Queen.”

“You still want to keep losing, sure,” Laura said. Wade scowled as he pulled off his boots and picked a bunk at random, curling up on it. Laura took the next bunk.

“Hey,” Wade said, as Laura pulled off her boots and gear. “D’you know anyone called Nate? Would be an oldish white guy. In his fifties.”

“No. Why? Who that?” A friend of Logan’s? Laura had never known any of her father’s friends. And she’d never ventured far from North Dakota. Especially once the wars began.

“…Nah. Never mind.”

Wade dropped off to sleep quickly. Laura waited, this time. Marshaling her own thoughts. Tomorrow would be a hard slog. One that they might not survive, even with healing factors. Eventually, Wade started to cry in his sleep again, low gasping sobs broken over a black grief that felt fresh for all that Wade was mourning a woman dead for a century, collateral damage that he could never undo. Laura listened. She offered a quiet prayer for the dead. Perhaps they could be persuaded to rest, even if they could not be persuaded to forgive. She closed her eyes, listening to her heartbeat. Bore witness until Wade eased up and went quiet.

#

Wade woke up because the world was rolling sideways. Laura bounced out of bed and crashed into the bunk beds lined against the opposite wall. She shoved away and curled against the wall just as Wade’s row of bunks smashed against hers. Then they were all weightless. Falling. Wade somehow managed to palm a shot of serum from his belt and inject himself just as the lights went out and gravity caught up in a brilliant rush of agony.

Suit lights. Laura was an unmoving tangle of hair and flesh under steel. Gasping, Wade extricated himself from the pole punched into his stomach and waited for his bones to knit. He dragged himself in Laura’s direction and injected her with the last shot from his stash. As she started to heal, Wade hauled bunks off her, stacking them against the side. He’d just gotten one clear when there was an earthshaking thump against the wall. Now the roof. Something cracked.

Wade sprinted for the door, wishing he’d slept in his boots. He hauled it open and pulled himself out. Just in time to see something twelve feet tall and with a strange, bulbous steel head tip down, thumping against the roof of the safehouse. Its sleek thorax was feathered with pistons for legs, which it dug into the debris and the apartment wall. The concrete cratered under the head but didn’t give.

“Hey! Ugly!” Wade yelled. He scrambled out as the hammer-thing turned in his direction.

The Girl appeared, standing by the hammer-thing’s side. She was looking around slowly, scanning for Wade. Wade started to stalk over as the hammer-thing skittered to straddle the bunk, its piston-legs raising its body over the concrete.

Before he could charge it, Laura grabbed Wade by the arm. She shoved his boots into his chest, then beckoned urgently. Message received. Wade pulled them on and hauled Laura’s arm over his shoulder. They made it down a block and into an alley before Laura could walk on her own, though she grimaced and clutched at her ribs. “Fuck this shit,” Laura said.

“Hell of a wake-up call. And I thought the safehouses were, well, safe.”

“They’ve always been tolerated before.” Laura looked grim. “Window’s closing maybe. Fuck.” She was covered in blood. Her own blood. A particularly deep gash in her throat was still closing up. Laura didn’t seem to notice—or care. She handed him a shot of serum, which Wade pocketed. “C’mon.”

They went around a large warehouse thick with infected strands, keeping to the pale blotches of sunlight. Not that it helped. As they walked, the largest arteries around and overhead began to pulse slowly, then distend. Large pustules began to grow outwards from each viral strand, some Laura’s size, some twice Wade’s.

“That’s… not good right?” Wade said slowly.

Laura had already unsheathed her claws. “Use the dose if you have to. Now we run.”

The pustules closest to them burst, each depositing a headless, thickly formed torso on the ground. Some had wings, some sharp-tipped legs, some huge claw-tipped palms. They startled to crawl, hobble, and hop over. Like the fucking Flood.

“Sweet baby Jesus. I take back every bad thing I ever said about Halo!” Wade yelped. He followed Laura as she started to sprint.

Something with way too many arms flopped down in front of her. Laura roared, with the killing-scream that Wade remembered from Sundown. She raked her claws down its flank and kept running. Wade dodged a bombing strafe from a flying-thing with a long stinger, palming one of his new guns from its holster and firing. The concussion blast slapped it into an opening pustule. It lashed out, stinging the many-legged thing within, which instantly closed serrated fangs over its torso. Something exploded next to Laura, blasting her off her feet and striping her arm with lines of acid. Wade hauled her to her feet with a grunt of effort and fired over her shoulder, blasting another flying-thing out of the air.

A huge wolf-headed thing with bars of blue eyes burst out of the warehouse block right in front of them, lurching forward with segmented coils through clouds of dust and debris. Miniguns spun out from under its throat. Laura sprinted to the side and started scaling the warehouse to their right, just hauling herself up by sinking her claws into concrete and steel. She had a smaller claw on each foot, one that Wade was pretty sure wasn’t Logan-compliant. Before he could make a comment, the wolf-thing braced itself, aiming.

Wade swore and dived through a clouded window to get inside, just as the miniguns started to whir. He flattened himself on the ground and started to crawl as bullets pockmarked the wall above him and stitched light into the building. Wade got up to run as the whirring sound cycled down, firing at the lock of the closest door to let himself through. He was out into a yard, disused vehicles choked with infection strands. Laura was ahead on the next roof, pouncing on something birthed from a pustule and lopping it into two with a distant yell.

Pocket rocket. Wade shot the chains off the yard gate and pushed himself into a dead sprint. He veered around the warehouse Laura was on, aimed, and blasted a beetle-thing behind her off the roof. Something hit him from behind and they rolled into a scrum, Wade jerking his head to the side as a spear-leg stabbed into the dirt. He rammed the muzzles of his guns into its gut and pulled the triggers. The spider was thrown back, crunching into a pylon and going still. Under the pylon was a river of advancing Flood and other spiders. Wade yelped, scrambling to his feet and hauling ass.

“Nate, this would be a really good time for you to appear with a fucking solution!” Wade hissed at the air. Nothing. Fuck Terminator!Cortana. Another throat-shredding roar from the distance told Wade he had a lot of catching up to do. He vaulted a fence and sprinted past a stack of discarded shipping containers, over the flank of an overturned train carriage. A spider sprang over the containers, claws outstretched. Wade blasted it out of the air and kept moving.

He made it to a rail yard just in time to see Laura going toe to toe with a massive centipede. She was stabbing her way up its back as it twisted and tried to dislodge her. A spider on the centipede’s back jumped for Laura. Wade caved in its flank with a shot. The centipede hissed, pivoting with eye-watering speed. Something—its tail—slapped into Wade, hard enough to crunch him into the flank of the nearest train carriage.

“Ouch,” Wade said. He coughed, somehow managing to roll free as the tail reversed, stabbing its sharp point through the train carriage. Wade knocked out the glass of a carriage window with an elbow and fired at the tail point-blank, bending it and locking it into the carriage. The centipede shrieked, lurching forward and falling into the horde, its sharp-pointed legs kicking out indiscriminately. Wade scrambled up and jumped free.

Laura caught up as he threaded through the rail yard. She was grinning her hyena-grin, bloody and acid-flecked. “That warehouse,” she said, pointing.

“The goddamned FedEx building? Holy shit. This is Death Stranding with zombies. Am I gonna get to meet Norman Reedus after all?”

“Twelve kills!” Laura yelled at him, and lunged up a carriage, eviscerating a spider cresting its flank with a contemptuous swipe. “Thirteen.”

“Fuck!” Wade twisted around and shot a bounding many-legged thing with a large mouth, then blasted out another wasp-thing behind Laura.

Bishop’s guns ran out of charges as he got close to the FedEx building. Laura was already through. Wade holstered the guns and drew his swords.

Sunlight was streaming down through the pylon-broken roof. Thick arteries easily ten feet in diameter fed down through the walls, the doors, the floor. The ground was a mass of flattened tendrils twisted in all directions, Giger on LSD. The vast building was completely covered with veinwork and superstructure, all of it feeding to a point near the far end that Wade couldn’t make out. As Laura headed towards it, an artery twisted free from the ground with a wrenching moan. Its ends split into strands that shot forward, earthing themselves against superstructure like harpoons. Laura jumped free, rolling as she came up. Strands twisted up against her thighs. She slashed herself loose. Wade tripped over something that jerked up against his knees. As he scrambled up he could see the Girl floating in the centre of the room. Her hands were clenched, her little face contorted in fury.

The wolf-headed thing burst through the back of the warehouse, wriggling to get past arteries that veered slowly out of its way. Wade vaulted a grasping vein and hauled Laura up from where she’d been knocked over by a swinging pylon. Closer. Wade could now see that all the veinwork in the room did have a confluence point. The knobbly shapes they fed to were covered in slow-writhing steel worms.

It didn’t look like any kind of Xenomorph Queen. Puzzled, Wade slowed down even as Laura pulled ahead. A tendril lashed at her out of nowhere, slapping her into the wall, where she screamed and flailed, clawing her way free. Wade was about to turn to help her when spiders started dropping down from the roof, then more and more deformed things, surrounding them both as Laura dragged herself loose and staggered to his side.

“Hijoputa,” Laura said, breathing hard. A gash on her cheek closed.

“Now what?” Wade asked.

“We thought there’d be something here. Something to kill. Looks like no. Sorry.”

“Nah. Don’t be sorry.” Wade faced the Girl as she watched him in the air beyond the wolf-thing. “I’m glad I met you. And Bishop. Hell, I’m even glad I met Nate.” He sheathed a blade and palmed his last shot of serum from his belt.

It flicked away from his palm, arrowing over the crowd and embedding itself deep in the side of the upright knobbly shape. What? Laura froze, surprised.

The ground beneath them shook, bouncing Wade off his feet with a yelp. As Laura hauled him up, Wade could see, through the spiders, two vaguely familiar orange pinpoints light up from the head-sized blob at the top of the knobbly shape.

“Laura. Gimme the rest of your serum. And help me clear a path over there.”

She opened her mouth to argue, closed it, and shoved her doses in his palm. Leaped at the closest spider with a yell. The wolf-thing shrieked, trundling closer, bouncing smaller Critters out of its way. Wade ducked under a slash from another spider and Laura got in the way of the next, shoving her claws into its belly. Something stabbed through Wade’s belly, but Laura twisted around with a snarl, jumping on whatever it was. Wade staggered free with a grunt and stabbed the next many-legged thing in his path. And he was there. He buried the last two shots into the knobbly shape and turned. Laura had gone down in the scrum.

Nothing.

Ah hell. Wade drew his second blade. It’d been a bit of a long shot. As he took a step forward, the ground shuddered violently again. There was a low discordant groan, a subterranean sound that quaked under their feet, bowling spiders aside. Wade stumbled, nearly falling flat on his face. Something grabbed his shoulder and righted him.

The wolf-thing’s head sheared free. The other Critters started to come apart, legs and thoraxes separating and scattering on the ground. The Girl vanished.

Wade turned around. Nate was pulling free from the tendrils, wincing. The steel worms over his face were fading into flesh, down his face. It was surprisingly gruesome. Wade watched with fascination as the infection faded, pushed back until Nate's infected parts tallied just one eye, a bit of his neck, and an arm, as far as Wade could see.

“That’s… the Zombie Guy? That you saw?” Laura had come up next to Wade. The great open wounds on her belly and arms were closing up.

“Yeah. Uh. Nate, this is Laura. Laura, Nate.” Wade sheathed his swords.

Laura frowned at Nate, then down at the other knobbly shape. From this angle, it looked vaguely human. “Nate. Nate. You’re Cable, aren’t you? An Askani Justicar. The Askani Justicar. Nathan Dayspring Summers.”

“Yeah,” Nate said. His voice was gruff and deep. Husky, as though he hadn’t spoken for a long time.

“Your wife and daughter were killed by a Hellfire King. It was big news even in North Dakota. Firefist. You…” Laura trailed off. She stared at the other shape again. “Is that… That’s Firefist?”

Nate nodded. Wade raised a palm. “Uh. Could I get some Cliff Notes for this conversation—Laura!” Wade hastily grabbed Laura as she advanced on Nate, her face twisting with rage. “Laura, chill out. He saved us. He saved me earlier in the tunnel.”

Laura was shouting in Spanish. She struggled in Wade’s grip. “He started this! This is Ground Zero! How did you do it?” Laura demanded, glaring at Nate. “How did you even fucking do this?”

“I didn’t think this would happen.” Nate sounded tired. “I just. I just wanted to kill Firefist. I wanted it all to end. I’d been struggling to hold back the infection all this time, trying to live. I just. Stopped.”

“How long have you been living with the infection?” Laura asked.

“All my life. Fifty years. I was infected in a Transigen lab as a baby. My TK manifested early. Held it back. It’s been a losing battle.”

“Fifty years,” Laura said, incredulous. “No one lives that long with an infection.”

“It was growing stronger. The strain I was carrying. Mutating to push back against my powers. Fighting me as I fought it. When I let go…” Nate exhaled. “I didn’t want all this to happen. I didn’t know.”

Laura howled, twisting. Wade held on more tightly. “Laura. Laura! It was an accident. All right? It was an accident.”

“You…” Laura stopped struggling. She spat at Nate’s feet. Glared at him, then at Wade. “You. All of you! What is wrong with all of you? Emotionally-stunted men and your fucking pity parties, fucking up the world for the rest of us!” She scowled at Nate. “So is it all over? The infection?”

“No. I told Wade. Something else is happening. Inland. At Three Mile Island. The virus is preparing for something. Evolving.”

“That’s just fucking great.” Laura threw up her hands and stamped away through the broken parts, snarling in Spanish.

Wade sighed. “Okay. You’re coming with us,” he told Nate.

“I…” Nate rubbed his palm over his face, shuddering. “Yes. Amends. I have to make amends.”

Chapter Text

They were definitely out of window by the time they reached the Lincoln Tunnels. The arteries pulsed sluggishly as they walked within view of the boarding. At the river, the coolant strands were dark and still, and the heat coming off the concrete was intense.

“Something happened to the virus in the water?” Wade asked. It was so hot that he’d pulled off his mask, tucking it into his belt. In the mid-morning sun, the scars on his skin were horrific, an unhealed raw colour swept in whorls and knots over the ruins of what had once clearly been a handsome face.

“Sabotaged the cooling system before I disengaged. And severed all the Critters in this zone from hive control.” Up until this point, Nate had been subdued, talking only when spoken to and in curt bursts.

“Explains why the Flood fucked off.” Wade, in comparison, had only grown more and more peppy as the day wore on, even in the heat. “So you’re both Transigen babies?”

Laura ignored the question. She picked a tunnel and peeked through the boarding. No blue spotlights. “Not that one,” Nate said. He gestured to the far right. “Left tunnel’s blocked.”

Wade kicked at the boarding, opening up a hole large enough to squeeze through. He peeked in. “Looks clear.”

“And yeah. I was born in a Transigen lab. Not the Mexico one. It was after they merged ops with the government. They wanted to study how the techno-organic virus could be stopped. Or controlled.”

“I didn’t think you could reverse the infection. Is it one of those Marvel handwave plot things?” Wade said, with a glance at Laura. “Maybe we could… push back all this infected Giger stuff. Have trees and stuff again.”

“Won’t work that way. Biomass generally gets redistributed quickly. Just wasn’t for me.”

“‘Cos you were source?” Laura asked. She didn’t bother to hide her bitterness or her loathing. They stepped through the boarding, Wade’s and Laura’s suit lights picking up in the dark. Nate was still wearing Justicar gear, its ribbed bodysuit pockmarked with breaches.

“Yeah,” Nate said. He scrubbed a palm over his silver hair, the shaved sides of his skull.

“What’s the deal with the ghosts? Not that I’ve seen the Lady or the Screaming Guy yet,” Wade said hastily, changing the subject.

“Echoes. Not ghosts. They’re psychic projections,” Nate said, “triggered by proximity. Even if you people with healing factors stay ‘invisible’ because while you trigger the proximity trap, your minds don’t register as human by the virus. The virus was part of me for a long time. Took on the parts of me that it liked and gave it all a voice.”

“…you’re what, dissociative? And one of your personalities is a little girl?” Wade asked, fascinated.

“No. The little girl…” Nate trailed off. Laura glanced over at Nate. His scarred face was distorted with self-disgust. “It’s coming back. The details. The ghost you people called Dead Man. His name was Firefist, he was a Hellfire King. The one you called the Lady. She was my wife. Louise. The Girl… she was my daughter. Hope.”

“So they’re out there like you were? Infected and waiting?” Laura asked, frowning.

“No. They’re long dead. The virus stole more than my powers. It took memories. Sensations. When it chooses to show a killing rage, it gives all that a face. My daughter’s face. Does it to hurt me.”

Laura turned to stare at Nate. She gestured at the webbing on the walls. “So you’re saying. All this. It’s alive? Knows malice?”

“No. Yes. No, I…” Nate shook his head. “It’s sideways from that. It’s more like a program. A really complex program.”

“Sent from space aliens to kill us all?” Wade asked, excited. Laura rolled her eyes in the dark, going around a pylon.

“No. Not really,” Nate said.

“Bishop was telling me about some kinda forest theory. Where instead of hugging trees people shoot other people or something. Hippie, but dark,” Wade said.

Nate nodded. “I’ve heard it. The program has an objective. It just. Wasn’t running it properly before, because the servers it was using kept dying first. Then there was me. I kept it alive, long enough for it to recalibrate. Learn new processes. And now it’s moving on. Taking out the coolants in the Hudson won’t have delayed it for long.”

“So what’s this virus program’s objective?” Laura demanded, suspicious. “This… this ‘not really’ killing all of us objective.”

“It doesn’t kill maliciously. Just as a byproduct. It’s just as happy to eat grass as biomass for its processes as a human body. All I know is that it’s building something under Three Mile Island. Everything it’s done so far, everything it’ll keep doing? It’s to fuel its new processes. Towards its objective.”

“Think I vaguely remember you saying something about how 'nobody in the world will be safe'." Wade imitated Nate's gruff voice.

“That was... I don't know. I'm losing the details. I'm not sure.”

“So you spent years as part of this thing but you don’t really know what it’s up to? And you’re what, a telepath?” At Nate’s slow nod, Laura spat out a string of invective and threw up her hands. “Lord Jesus save me from useless white men!”

Wade started to laugh. He sounded like he couldn’t help it. It began as a snicker and then he was shaking from it, leaning against the wall as he gasped and choked on his mirth. Laura glared at him but it only seemed to make it worse. She kicked him in the shin with a snarl and kept stamping onwards, but her fury was starting to ebb. Wade did that to her, all without even meaning to. He could somehow disarm people just by being ridiculous.

Laura was in a slightly more conciliatory mood by the time they reached the safehouse. “Is this a good idea?” Wade asked dubiously, as she scanned the door open. “I mean. The virus knocked the other safehouse off a building like it was smacking a piñata.”

“Need supplies.” Laura jerked her thumb at Nate. “He can keep watch. Infected won’t be able to get in anyway.”

There were spare clothes for Laura and Nate in the safehouse, along with charges for Wade’s guns. Laura grudgingly piled out all the other guns at Nate’s polite request and watched him float a mattress and the guns up to the roof. As he climbed up, Laura said to Wade, “Hope you’re right about him.”

“I get a good feeling about people sometimes. Mind you, it doesn’t always turn out right. But. If all else fails? We could always just kill him,” Wade said cheerfully. He’d used the sonic shower and the bathroom. It’d helped with the bloodstains but not the rips in his gear. Laura had opted to change, but Wade had declined spare clothes. He picked at one of the larger tears now with gloved fingers as he talked.

“We’ll fix that. When we get to Sundown.” Laura gestured at Wade’s clothes.

Another gear upgrade? Aww. That’s boss battle signaling. And we didn’t even get a training montage.”

“I’m gonna sleep. You wanna sit up with that guy, you better watch him carefully. And if I wake up dying? I will kill him.”

“We are both so fucked up,” Wade said, with mock sadness.

#

Nate had some weird-ass way of Lego’ing lots of small guns into a huge-ass gun. Wade watched with fascination as Nate worked, discarding some pieces, adding on others. He sat on the edge of the mattress, kicking at the air. Nate was cross-legged further in, busy elongating the muzzle of the new rifle.

“She’s right,” Nate said, without looking up. “Right to be angry. I fucked up. And I don’t even have much of a fix on how to unfuck things.”

“This is a Marvel story. Something convenient will come up. There’d be fisticuffs at the end despite the existence of advanced technology. And then we’ll save the day and everything will be fine.”

Nate let out a snort, though his mouth twitched. He finished modding the rifle and stacked the rest of the spare parts aside. Aimed down the long muzzle and set the rifle down. Then he looked back at Wade, his face unreadable. “It’s scary how much you’re like her. Louise.”

“Your wife?” Wade blinked. “Pretty sure you’re mistaken. Unless your wife’s also over six feet tall and a burn victim.”

“Not that. You woke up into the end of the world. Lost everyone you’ve known. Most people would’ve broken down. Withdrawn. Not jumped feet first into trying to fix it. You compensate with constant jokes that help you hide your pain, that push you forward. She did that too.”

“Yeah, well. Before I woke up into the end of the world, I actually tried to end it all. Thought I did. Miss Angrypants down there somehow dug me up and woke me up.”

“And you’re still here,” Nate said quietly. “You fought like hell to help her get where she wanted. You’re still here.”

“I kinda knew her dad,” Wade said, though that was a maybe-lie in this continuity. Or not.

Nate sat down beside him. “A long time ago you probably decided that you were a bad person. Or a broken person, or unworthy, or all of those things. It’s made you a ruthless judge of yourself. Louise did that too.”

“Nothing like a bit of self-awareness in the morning.” Wade patted his holsters. “Nobody gets this good at violence—if I may say so myself—without a lot of practice. And I figured way back that if I was good at something I might as well get paid a lot to be good at it.”

“I like it. Wish I had it. That kinda introspection.” Nate stared at his hands, infected and uninfected. “Maybe I wouldn’t have fucked up.”

“Recognising you fucked up is a good first step,” Wade said, patting him on the shoulder. “Part of the Three Stages of Fucking Up. First, you fuck up. Then you recognise that you fucked up. Then you go and fuck something else up. Repeat Steps 2-3 for as long as necessary.”

“Don’t think that’s how it’s meant to work.”

“Always worked for me.” It had been two days and forever in between, but Wade was already cautiously starting to feel better about surviving Ness. About surviving the end of the world. Maybe there was something to what Laura said, about the state of Wade’s face not being the answer. Maybe he had to make up for it. Even the scales. Saving the world was probably going to be a good bet.

“Laura’s claws. And her healing factor. Her father’s the Wolverine?” Nate guessed.

“You guys still know about that guy? It’s been a hundred years.” Fuck Wolverine, seriously.

“He’s only one of the most famous mutants of all time,” Nate said quietly. “Everyone knows about Eden. Mutant sanctuary in North Dakota. Story is the Wolverine fought off a whole Transigen army. Sacrificed himself so the Founders could get free. I’ve never been to Eden, but I’ve seen pictures of it. There’s a big statue of the Wolverine there.”

“It isn’t in North Dakota anymore. Thanks to the Metalocalypse. Think they moved to a northern bit of Canada.”

Nate sobered. “Oh.”

“Yeah. Just in case you need any more context as to why Laura tried to kill you.”

“Why’d you stop her?”

“Eh well, glass houses and all that. When I tried to kill myself I blew up an apartment. The kinda explosive self-harm that probably resulted in off-screen casualties. Stuff that Marvel and DC don’t depict so that they can keep humanising their main characters for mass consumption.”

Nate let out a grunt. “You feeling better?”

“Nah. Feeling better wasn’t the point.”

“I meant now.”

“Weirdly? Yeah.” Wade was still having the dreams, good and bad. But the waking world didn’t feel like he was dreamwalking through agony, where taking every breath felt like an effort, teetering between running on neutral and breaking. It’d taken the end of the world to push Wade into a functional state, maybe. That and there was something relentless about Laura. Even when she wasn’t trying, Wade felt like he was being dragged into her gravitational pull. She’d inherited more than claws and her murder mode from her father.

“Good,” Nate said. He shifted up, lying down on the mattress with the gun close at hand, folding his hands over his chest. Staring up at the stars. Wade still couldn’t read Nate. But he knew how he’d felt when he’d first untangled himself off the asphalt and the carcass of a dead mobster. It was why Wade had camped in Sister Margaret’s until Weasel had promised that he’d do whatever Wade wanted if Wade would only fuck off. Being alone when you weren’t used to it also hurt. Almost as much as losing someone in the first place.

Nate made a surprised sound when Wade lay down beside him, but he shifted away to make room instead of pushing back. It was an awkward fit. The bunks were made for one, and Nate was broad around the shoulders. “’Cos it’s a nice night,” Wade said, a little defensively.

“Yeah.”

“You used to live in New York?”

“Brooklyn. You?”

“Used to live in Hell’s Kitchen. Then I moved in with my…” Wade trailed off, his next breath rattling in his throat. Nate stayed quiet until Wade calmed down and said, in a more normal voice, “Hell’s Kitchen used to be the stomping grounds of this other dude in red spandex. Nowhere as cool as I was, but I think he had the ability to bend space and time. Or survive with no sleep. He was a partner in a law firm and a superhero.”

“The Daredevil.”

“What? You guys remember a superhero lawyer? That’s bullshit.” Wade scowled.

Nate started to chuckle. “While it’s amazing to me that you knew some of these people. They were legends. You lived in a time of giants.”

“That’s not a nice way to talk about the Hulk… Oh, you mean metaphorically, like, Tony Stark, the X-Men, and the others. Heh. A time of people with great PR, maybe. That’s all you need at the end to be remembered kindly.”

“I doubt it,” Nate said. He closed his eyes. One eye, anyway. The infected eye merely dulled, unfocusing as Nate turned his face away. “You should get some rest.”

#

Laura went pale as they walked into sight of Sundown. The electrified border was down, the blast door wrenched open. A long artery had punched through into the decontamination room beyond, where blue beacons flickered through the dimly lit chamber.

“How…?” Laura whirled, glaring at Nate.

“The virus. It’s getting stronger,” Nate said. This deep down, at least the air wasn’t unpleasantly hot. Wade pulled down his mask as Laura let out a low growl.

“I’m going in. Bishop still owes me a drink,” Wade said.

Laura shouldered past before Wade could get to the door, and burst into a sprint with a yell. The fight was nearly over by the time Wade and Nate got past the gate. Laura was pouncing on a third spider, claws shearing its body in two. The corridors and chambers were lit in red emergency lights. Nate adjusted a dial on his rifle and fired a blast that crumpled a spider against the ceiling, even as Wade drove a blade into the last spider.

“You two take left. I go right,” Laura said. “Find survivors.”

There weren’t any to find. There were some ugly bloodstains in the sleeping quarters, but the bodies had long been dragged off elsewhere. The attack had been a surprise, but it didn’t look like there had been a massacre. There wasn’t enough blood for that. And the armoury had been hastily looted. The emergency supplies that were racked to the wall were mostly missing.

They found Laura at the southern entrance, studying the blast door. “Locked down,” Laura said. She pressed her hand to the bioscan pad and it flared red. “Looks like an emergency sequence. Would’ve been locked to Bishop.”

“So they escaped?” Nate asked.

“No thanks to you.” Laura tried a scan again. Another error. She snarled and stabbed her claws through the bioscan pad. Something crackled and sparked. The blast door rolled open.

“That sort of shit really shouldn’t work in real life,” Wade said, blinking. The south gate opened to a decontamination room that was spotted with blood. The survivors had headed out into the gloom. “Isn’t running away ‘out of window’ very bad in some way that hasn’t yet been explained to me? Is everyone probably dead now?”

“We look,” Laura said, grim. “Bloodstains old. Maybe one, two days old. Spiders maybe the ones from the big artery across trench. Followed Bishop here. Maybe…” She shook her head. Sheathed her claws and started to run, sniffing the air.

There wasn’t far to go. They found the remains of floater carts shattered into pieces an hour out from Sundown in a high-ceilinged chamber with a storm drain. There was a lot of blood this time, and signs of a fight. A couple of strewn spider bodies. Scattered supplies. And a piece of a familiar red scarf, snagged on bits of bloodied body armour. Wade followed the blood trail to a stained section of the wall, a dark seam between arteries. Biomass, recycled.

Wade spun around as Laura let out a yell. She was on her knees, slamming her fists down on the stained ground. Laura bowed her head with a hoarse animal sound, her hands clenched tight as her shoulders shook. When she got to her feet, her expression was tight. “Fuck all of this. And fuck you,” Laura told Nate venomously. He said nothing, though he met her eyes evenly until Laura looked away. She inspected the overturned supplies, or tried to. After a few minutes, Laura sat down on part of a cart, her head in her hands. “Look through this stuff. See what we can use,” Laura said, in a monotone.

Protein packs, water pills, water canteens. Wade helped sort out what he could recognise into a duffel bag, while Nate picked out other things that were presumably useful into a second bag. By the time they were done, Laura was prowling around the chamber, even peering down into the storm drain. “We should get to Osorio. See if they’re all right. Slight detour. We’ll need more supplies anyway. We're not equipped for an inland trip.”

“Osorio. Another Quarantine Zone?” Wade asked.

Laura nodded. “It’s better defended. So.” She frowned down at the blood caked on the concrete, let out a breath, and crossed herself. “It’s better defended,” Laura repeated, as though to assure herself, and started walking.

Chapter Text

Osorio was an anomaly that only existed because of magic, a phenomenon that by definition defied logic. Laura didn’t trust it. Pre-infection, Osorio had been some sort of ‘Sanctum’ that existed in Greenwich Village. Post-infection it had surfaced deep under Staten Island as a sprawling settlement with a different name, always somehow managing to stay just under the viral superstructure, reachable only by chance. To reach Sundown, Laura would usually bypass Osorio completely, willing to lug extra supplies up from the previous Quarantine Zone if she had to.

“So you are literally a wizard,” Wade said, as they packed into the office. The study and so-called inner sanctum of the current Sorceror Supreme was a cube filled with books on all sides but the floor, even the ceiling, held in place by more magic. There were no chairs, only beanbags that moulded uneasily under Laura’s adamantium-enhanced weight as she sat down where waved. “Where’s your pointy hat?”

The Sorceror Supreme smiled, cross-legged on her beanbag. Aisha Khan looked like she was in her late twenties, though Laura wasn’t sure. She was relatively new to her role: the previous Sorceror Supreme had died trying to fight the infection. Aisha had shoulder-length, glossy dark hair and a knowing grin that unsettled Laura’s instincts. She was wrapped in a high-collared red cloak that twitched and flowed to a breeze that only it could feel, worn over a plain shirt and trousers. A heavy gold chain sat heavily over her chest.

“No hats. Welcome to Osorio,” Aisha said. She looked them over slowly, pausing over Nate’s face, then studying Wade. “I know of everyone here but you, Mister…?”

“Call me Wade. You’re the latest Doctor Strange, I’m guessing?” Wade asked.

“Doctor Khan. There hasn’t been a Doctor Strange for decades,” Aisha said, “and I’m not a medical doctor. PhD in mathematics. I’m Aisha.” She shook Wade’s hand, then looked over at Laura. “We received a distress signal from Sundown. With the window so abruptly over though, we’ve been barely able to recover our own survey teams. Let alone send out a search and rescue.”

“No survivors.” Laura’s eyes stung as she said it, but thankfully the tears didn’t come. Laura was long past crying in front of strangers.

“Ah, I see.” Aisha’s face fell. “I’m sorry to hear that. I liked Bishop.”

“So did I,” Laura said.

“If magic exists in this ‘verse, can’t you just do the—" Wade wiggled his hands in a circle, “—and send us through a portal to Three Mile Island? This story could be over in the next chapter, even.”

Aisha shook her head. “Preserving Osorio’s boundaries needs all of my strength.”

“Well, that’s convenient. Hey, don’t you guys have an Infinity Stone? The Green Stone of Infinite Plot Holes? You can turn back time, right? Maybe to the point where Nate here decides to vomit tentacles onto an enemy. We can smack some sense into him. Maybe haul him off for therapy.” Wade pointed at the golden necklace.

Nate narrowed his eyes even as Aisha sighed. “I wish I could,” she said.

“How are you even in this story anyway? Has Disney already bought over Fox? Or are we doing the thing like the Maximoff kids, where they somehow exist in both universes?” Wade sank into his beanbag, stretching out his long legs. “I appreciate all the free water though.”

“Have as much as you like,” Aisha said, with a sympathetic smile. The last couple of days’ trek to Osorio had been brutal, even underground. They’d had to trek close to the surface to get around blockages, and with the temperature running high they’d sweated through their water rations quickly. At the end, Wade and Laura had simply given their canteens to Nate and opted to tough it out. At least a healing factor meant they couldn’t die of thirst, even if it did mean they were going to go through hell and back for pushing it.

“We need supplies,” Laura said, having never seen the point of going in diplomatic circles, the way Bishop liked to. “Water. Protein packs. As much as you can give us. We’re heading for Three Mile Island.”

“Oh? And why are one of the Founders of Eden and a Justicar headed to Three Mile Island?” Aisha’s stare flicked briefly down over Nate’s infected arm. Getting Nate the go-ahead to enter Osario had been a close thing. Laura had been reluctant to lean on her own reputation, but she’d recognised the necessity.

“The virus is evolving. Three Mile Island is the centre of its efforts. You have an uplink to Shanghai?” Nate asked.

Aisha shook her head. “We did, up until the recent window abruptly closed. Whatever caused that also caused us to lose our satellite uplink. We only heard about what happened to Sundown because of our radio link.”

“Who called it in?” Laura was dreading the answer. Whoever called it in would’ve had to stay back at comms. She’d seen the blood, but not the body. Someone had died alone.

“Yue, right before she died. She must’ve stayed behind,” Aisha said. Her fingers threaded together. “Sorry.”

“What’s in Shanghai?” Wade asked, as Nate looked down at his boots.

“Askani HQ,” Nate said quietly. “My people. Wanted to call in and talk to them.” He paused. “If they’re still there.”

“The Askani are still kicking around, as far as I know. Though I think the war they’ve been waging against the Hellfire Kings has been briefly paused. Hostile ceasefire. Since the viral outbreak,” Aisha said, with the indifference of someone hyperfocused on her own problems.

Wade raised a palm. “Wiki doesn’t work here so… what are the Askani?”

Aisha frowned at Laura. “Did you people just not talk? All the way here?”

“Had to conserve water,” Laura said. Even with healing factors, it had hurt to talk in the killing heat, like trying to squeeze the words out through glass fragments. She turned to Wade. “The Askani are a mutant-led paramilitary faction. At war with the Hellfire Kings. Fun group of people.”

Nate glowered at her, the first uptick of anger Laura had seen since he’d been pulled out of the cocoon. “Rebel fighters.”

“You guys are one step away from being terrorists. Sometimes not even that.”

“Better than staying silent and standing aside in the face of injustice, like Eden,” Nate snapped.

“We were running a sanctuary! While you people just destabilise areas without offering any fucking solutions to the underlying problems. Sometimes shit just gets worse!”

“So you’d rather we’d just, what, stood aside and wrung our hands and let people die?”

“There’s a difference between fixing a problem and turning it into a time bomb, culero. You can’t solve every problem by murdering people!”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Wade ducked between them, holding up his palms. “Please don’t stab me, my clothes are already literally hanging together by a thread. A few threads.”

Laura scowled, sheathing her claws. She turned to Aisha with some effort. The Sorceror Supreme was watching them mildly, as though their outburst had only been a blip that deserved minimal attention. “No vidcomms to any of the settlements?”

“Nope. Radio only. Which means no contact with New Eden, if that’s what you’re looking for. Sorry.” Aisha looked genuinely apologetic. “But if you leave a message, the moment the satlink comes back online, I’d be happy to relay it.”

“Thanks,” Laura said. She’d have to think of something. Or maybe not. Laura had never been one for long letters. “Just tell New Eden I’m still alive. Still working on the problem.”

“And we’ll be happy to give you what supplies we can spare,” Aisha said, which turned out to be less than what Laura was hoping for. Still, she understood. Now that Sundown was gone, Osorio was the last settlement in this part of the East Coast. With the supplies Aisha was offering, they’d be able to get to the next settlement. At least it was free.

As Laura started to leave, Aisha smiled and waved her back down. “I’d like to talk to you about New Eden,” she said. Laura settled down with a frown. Aisha glanced at Wade and Nate. “I’ve put the word out. There are rooms prepared for you in the guesthouse. Eat and drink what you need.”

When Laura was alone with Aisha, she said, “What do you want?”

“Straight to the point.” Aisha eased down in her beanbag with a tired smile. She’d let down her guard—she was allowing Laura to see her exhaustion, the strain that came from holding Osorio safe from the infection. “You clearly don’t trust Cable. So why are you going to Three Mile Island with him?”

“I think he genuinely wants to atone,” Laura said, because she might loathe what Nate had done but she could see that he loathed himself just as much for it. “And besides. Bishop’s been trying to get to Ground Zero for years. Thought he could just save the world if he got there. If I got there. Now we know that wasn’t it. Three Mile Island’s just the next lead we’ve got.”

“Tenuous as it is.”

“Got to have faith. If it turns out to be wrong? We try again. Something else.” Laura exhaled. “Lord knows I’ve got time to spare. It’s the rest of you who don’t.”

#

Osorio had helpfully reprinted a set of gear for Wade, plus a spare. Even underpants. He sat in his new underpants in the lower bunk, neatly sorting gear and supplies into a duffel bag. Aisha hadn’t been that generous, as far as Wade could tell, but Osorio was packed with people, densely crowded the way Sundown wasn’t. It was probably on strict rationing.

“You’re military,” Nate said.

Wade glanced up. Nate had come in quietly after his sonic shower. Laura got her own room, but Wade and Nate had to share one—space looked like it was at a premium even in the ‘guest’ area. “How’d you figure that out?”

“The way you pack. There’s an obvious sequence. Some things don’t change.”

“Canadian Special Forces,” Wade admitted. He zipped up the duffel bag. As he stretched to move it to the floor, he noticed Nate tracking him out of the corner of his eyes. “What?” Wade asked, tucking the bag under the bed.

“Didn’t say anything,” Nate said.

Wade looked himself over. Was it the scars? “You didn’t seem to mind before.”

“Mind what?”

“The scars,” Wade said. He’d meant to sound flippant, but he’d never been able to be flippant about his body, no matter how Ness worked to make him feel comfortable about it. No matter how he told himself it didn’t matter. Wade knew it was petty. Without the healing factor, he would’ve died, drowning in his failing body. Even if he wasn’t suffering from cancer he would’ve grown old sooner or later. Nothing stayed beautiful.

And yet. It still hurt. Strangers used to come up to him on the street and ask him if he was a movie star. With the scars, they usually crossed the street, averting their eyes.

Nate stared at him, surprised. “You thought I mind the scars?”

“My eyes are up here,” Wade said flatly, “and I know I’ve got nothing else worth looking at.”

“Does it hurt?”

“This? Nah. Cancer? Some days.”

“It’s not that bad,” Nate said quietly. “Not worse than what I’ve got.”

Wade shot him an incredulous once-over. “What, the techno-whatsit virus? Fuck off. It looks awesome.”

“Did you miss the part where Osorio’s perimeter guard nearly shot me instead of letting me in?”

“Well obviously not, but. Seriously.” Wade got up and walked over, slowly, telegraphing each step. When Nate didn’t budge, Wade poked at the shoulder plate that the virus had given Nate. Picked up his infected hand, turning it palm-up. “If you’d asked me to design the coolest way a terminal future virus could look, this would be it.”

“It’s destroyed a whole continent.”

“Well yes, but in a cool way. I mean, sure, lots of people died, and little kitties and puppies and trees and stuff, but you guys are living in a reality that looks like the lovechild of Escher and Giger and Nihei. Big mood.” Wade tickled his fingers down the underside of Nate’s arm, listening to the faint whir that came from within it as Nate flinched a little.

“Wade.”

“What?”

“You’re standing real close,” Nate said, in a low and husky rumble.

“Yeah? What are you gonna do about it?” Wade asked, rubbing his thumb over the grooves on Nate’s infected arm, watching his bionic eye flare and refocus, a faint flush climbing in his cheeks. In the charged silence Ness felt like forever ago, like Wade was finally being given an option to let go. Breathing out felt like scattering fresh dirt over her grave all over again, like being crushed down by reality and squeezed out. Dreams were just dreams. Weasel had known this and had tried to be cruel. Laura had known this and tried to be kind. He hadn’t wanted to hear it from either of them.

Nate—Nate leaned in. His mouth nudged up close to Wade’s neck, without touching him. Waited a few seconds for Wade to flinch back. When Wade didn’t budge, Nate pushed closer, his breathing unsteady. He kissed Wade, a tentative peck on the mouth, then hissed as Wade shoved him against the wall and dug his fingers into Nate’s shoulders. Wade cut his lip on Nate’s teeth, licked into his mouth, breathing in compressed huffs. Hands twitched up over Wade’s back, running greedily over scarred skin, thumbs nudging down into the hem of his boxers.

Wade slowed down and Nate let him. At the end of the world, it felt like they had time to spare. Wade rubbed his thumbs over Nate’s fresh-shaven jaw, over his scalp, the powerful lines of his throat. To the juts of steel against his spine, through the gorgeous angular planes of his body. War-forged lines of muscles jumped under Wade’s palms, even where they were stitched against the infection. Wade could feel Nate’s cock pressed against his thigh, a swollen bulge that twitched as Wade squeezed Nate’s ass.

“Feels big,” Wade breathed against Nate’s ear. They ground together through their clothes, chafing and all, and it should have been uncomfortable and they were way too old to be rubbing one out like this against the wall. Nate groaned, his hands clenched over Wade’s hips, thrusting against him. “Bet you want to get that inside me,” Wade said, grinning as Nate gasped. “Maybe I should let you. Got a healing factor, might as well use it. Give me messy and fucked up and—”

Nate kissed him, backing him towards the bunks. Wade’s shoulders hit the top bunk as he curled his arms around Nate’s shoulders. He was breathing Nate in, absorbing him, taking in Nate’s nervous energy, the destructive edge of his lust. That was what was getting Wade’s blood up. Not the way Nate was kneading his hips, thumbs stroking his skin. It was what he knew Nate was holding back. Wade growled. He bit down, hard, casting bait into still waters. Nate flinched, his moan shaking into a hoarse groan.

“I’m gonna—” Nate dug his thumbs pointedly into the hem of Wade’s boxers.

When Wade merely bit him again, harder, Nate growled and shoved their underwear down. He pulled away, spat blood-flecked spit into his palm and curled it around their cocks. His fingers were thick and rough and unforgiving, jacking them both in brutal strokes. Wade wished it was the infected palm. He could see that curled into the bunk, hard enough to indent the steel frame. Their gasps and moans felt way too loud in the closed-off room. It wasn’t enough. Wade wanted—Wade wanted Nate to make it hurt. Make it stick. Nothing else in the world was going to. Not other people, not death, not even time. Nate’s palm nudged roughly against the swollen cap of Wade’s cock, not slick enough, nearly painful, and Wade let out a grateful groaning sound that made Nate go briefly still.

“You want it to hurt,” Nate said slowly.

“Don’t you?” Wade shot back. “You don’t want this to feel good either. You want to suffer. You want this to feel like you’re gonna regret it.” He pressed a bruising kiss to Nate’s mouth, ran his tongue against Nate’s teeth, nearly hard enough to hurt. Dared Nate to deny it.

“Christ,” Nate whispered. His next breath shook against clenched teeth. Then Nate pressed the fingertips of his steel hand against Wade’s face, bruising flesh. Wade started to twist away, only to freeze as his nerve-endings all lit on fire. He had no other way to describe it. Pure sensation burned his mind from all directions: the warming steel against his shoulders, the pings of pain from the fingers against his face, the cold rough stone under his feet. The knees pressed against his thighs, the squeeze-slide of Nate’s hand and cock against his. Too good and too quick and too much. It hurt in a way Wade never knew pleasure could hurt. Whatever Nate was doing ripped Wade’s orgasm from him, and he would have screamed if Nate hadn’t hastily kissed him to swallow it.

Wade was still dazed when Nate cleaned them up by swiping up the mess with Wade’s underwear and dumping that on the floor. He folded them both over the lower bunk in a messy sprawl that fit badly against the wall. It was comfortable anyway, somehow. Wade breathed in sex and sweat and grinned. He knew he probably looked dopey as hell, but. “Wow.”

Nate huffed. He sounded amused. “You’re welcome.”

“How’d you do that?”

“Telepath.”

“I didn’t know telepaths could actually—” Wade wiggled his fingers by his temple in his best imitation of Xavier, “—you know, literal mindfucking.”

“The brain is the biggest sex organ. This shouldn’t be a difficult stretch.”

“Gonna tell you what else isn’t gonna be a difficult stretch,” Wade said, with as dirty a smirk as he could manage. Nate shook his head, closing his eyes. He let Wade settle in, as though he didn’t want to spoon. Wade knew better. He could hear Nate’s breathing easing off. The way it usually did whenever they lay together like this. Wade listened to its cadence, head tucked under Nate’s chin, legs tangled.

Chapter Text

Wade woke up when Cable flinched awake beside him. Instincts took over—Wade had a hand pushed under the pillow for the pistol that wasn’t there before his brain rebooted the rest of the way up. People were walking past outside, talking about their work shifts. Something about a malfunction in Recycling Plant B. A door opened and closed further down. Silence.

“Someone’s jumpy,” Wade said.

The dark room smelled of sex and sweat and sleep-breath, an unpleasant cocktail that Wade drank in, trying to impress it into his memory. Sex had probably been a once-off. A quick fuck before going back into the infected cityscape. Nate was military too, wasn’t he? Laura had said something along those lines. Quick Hail Mary, We Might Die Tomorrow fucks were about on par for the military, even with spouses on the side. A long time and forever ago, it’d been a pre-mission ritual that Wade had liked. With the way he’d looked then, he’d been popular.

“You’re the one who reached for a gun.” Nate rumbled against Wade, yawning. As he shifted, his cock nudged against Wade’s hip, already thick and hot. Hello, morning stiffy. It felt just as big as Wade remembered, a long bar pushed against Wade’s bare skin, the swollen tip nudging out of Nate’s low-slung boxers. When Wade went still, Nate shifted up onto an elbow with a frown. The glow from his eye threw a weird burnished colour over his skin and infected arm. “Hey. Everything all right?”

“Everything? That’s a pretty generic question. I mean. The world’s fucked. Central Park is gone. There are maybe no more trees or something. No more animals. Which means no more corgis. Our brave leader has serious rage issues. You have serious rage issues—”

Nate bent, taking an unhurried sleepy kiss that he broke off abruptly when Wade didn’t move. Nate pulled up, frowning again, starting to open his mouth. He let out a grunt of surprise as Wade hauled him down for a messy kiss, grinding up against Nate’s thigh until he was getting hard. They fit badly against each other like this. Nate’s cock was rubbing a wet trail against Wade’s belly, over his ruined skin. He was trying to brace his own weight, his steel arm whirring, while his free hand stripped off his boxers and dumped them off the floor.

Wade rubbed a palm up the infection on Nate’s torso, up to where it’d nearly eaten right over his heart. There was a strange hydraulic sound coming from Nate, close to the juncture between his arm and his chest. It was a machine-noise that should’ve been off-putting this close, but it was weirdly sexy instead. Nate as a whole was weirdly sexy, gruff voice, laser pointer eye, scarred face and all. Wade shifted down to chase the sound with his mouth, digging his nails greedily into the ugly weave of steel sinews over Nate’s flank.

Nate made a wounded noise, as though shocked by his lust. He tried to wrestle Wade back up but Wade growled and shoved back, grappling Nate and trying to manhandle him further up the bed. Nate twisted out of Wade’s grip with an annoyed growl, then yelped as he overbalanced, grabbing instinctively at Wade as they slipped off the bed in a messy sprawl of limbs.

“What the fuck,” Nate hissed, wincing and rubbing the back of his head, his shoulders nudged over concrete. “That hurt, asshole.”

“Ha, I win,” Wade said, smug as he levered himself over Nate’s hips and looked down, giving Nate’s cock the slow admiring once-over that it deserved. “Wonder if I can fit all that in my mouth? It’s been a while.”

“Same here,” Nate said. He was breathing hard, his silvery hair plastered over his scalp. “You don’t have to do that. Get up on the bed and I’ll do…” He trailed off, blinking slowly, as Wade pointedly sucked a couple of fingers into his mouth. “Jesus. Are you gonna. That’s gonna hurt you,” he said, as Wade pressed impatient fingers into himself. “We don’t have supplies here.”

“Yup, well, tell me something I don’t know.” The stretch always hurt like this at the start. Got his blood up. Made him pant.

“Christ.” Nate’s hands stroked up and down Wade’s thighs, steel and flesh both. He looked uncertain. “There might be a kit somewhere. Outside. This ain’t gonna feel good for you.”

“S’what you think.” Three fingers now and Wade had to spit again to wedge them in further. He knew he was going to need more, judging from the size of what Nate had been hiding in his pants, but Wade wasn’t sure if he cared for more prep. Nate was watching Wade stretch himself, going quiet as Wade pressed his fingers within him to the knuckles with a purr. Nate’s infected hand clenched into a fist that he left carefully on the floor and he spat on his palm, stroking Wade’s cock with slow tugs.

“Don’t need that,” Wade said. He held Nate’s wide-eyed stare and grinned as he lined himself up and started to grind down.

Yeah. It hurt.

Nate made a strangled noise, his hips twitching, the hydraulic sound from within his chest whistling louder in the tiny room. His infected fingertips ground over concrete as Wade took Nate deeper, stuffing himself full in a way that felt like he was shredding pleasure into pain, into white-hot pulses of sensation. With Ness, Wade had always used copious amounts of lube, keeping things fun and loose, sexy and tender. Wade didn’t want what he was doing with Nate to remind him of that. Better like this. It didn’t feel like Wade was betraying Ness’ memory if it hurt as much as it felt good.

Nate was balls-deep now, a gritty fit, and Wade sighed as he sat back and took in even the thick root, flush against Nate’s hips. Wade’s cock was dripping against Nate’s fingers and Nate was still staring at Wade in disbelief, like he wasn’t sure why or how Wade could enjoy this. “Good for you yet?” Wade asked. His voice felt like it had been ripped up an octave.

“You really want it like this?” Nate asked, in between strangled gasps.

“Can’t you tell? You’re a seriously lazy telepath.”

“Can’t read your thoughts. All… nffh… all I can read off you is hurt.” Nate was wincing as he spoke, trying to stay still against Wade.

“Then you’re not reading the right signs.” Wade pointedly shoved his hips against Nate’s hand. He was still hard, his cock an eager curve in Nate’s grip. Nate sucked in a tight breath, as though he finally understood what Wade was trying to get at. He pushed himself up and backed them over to the side of the bed, until Nate’s shoulders fetched up against the bunk.

Now Nate kissed like it was going to hurt him to breathe, muffling snarls against Wade’s mauled mouth. Wade raked his blunt nails down Nate’s back, drinking in the furious lust starting to bleed off Nate, the still-simmering violence, the guilt and self-loathing. Nate thrust roughly up against him, froze as Wade yelped, then groaned as Wade arched and rolled his hips to take Nate deeper. He bit Nate hard on his shoulder when Nate didn’t get with the program, grinding in his teeth until Nate hissed and shoved up into Wade again, heels braced on the concrete.

“Better,” Wade gasped, as Nate set up a hard rhythm, dirty and quick. “Fuck that hurts—no, don’t fucking stop, I swear, I’ll make you fucking regret it, stab you in the shiny bits, motherFUCK—” Wade yelped as Nate picked him up and dumped him on the edge of the bed. His head cracked against the wall as Nate bared his teeth and used the leverage to drive against him, not bothering to wait for Wade to brace himself.

The bunk thumped against the wall and they had to be making enough noise to wake the floor even from just their groans. Wade tucked his heels against Nate’s back and grinned. He couldn’t tell whether it hurt more than it felt good, whether he wanted it this way or harder, or gentler, or if he wanted to be the one fucking Nate or taking it, and it didn’t matter. Violence always untangled life for Wade where it counted. Wade scored his nails down Nate’s arms and held on, his breaths punched out of him in laughter and sobs.

Nate was gasping something in between his groans, something that sounded like a litany of “fuck, fuck,” that was screamingly funny to Wade at the moment, a punchline for a joke that eluded him. Wade laughed, chuckling until he was gasping from it, breathless, drowning. Nate shook his head and caught Wade’s flagging cock in a fist. The mental spike of pleasure took Wade by surprise all over again, scouring him clean as he yowled. Wade spent himself over his stomach, going limp and struggling to get air back into his lungs. He was shaking from the comedown. Nate slowed down, shuddering. Went still at a loud knock on the door.

“I fucking hate you guys,” Laura said dryly.

“Oops?” Wade croaked. He started to laugh again, snickering as Nate exhaled.

“Breakfast now. Get the hell up, assholes.” Laura thumped the door again and walked off.

“Ah!” Wade wrapped his legs around Nate’s waist as he tried to pull out. “You’re not done. Hurry up. Before you do the old man thing and lose the plot.”

“God, you piss me off,” Nate said, though he didn’t sound like he meant it. He pulled out with a wet and ugly sound, jacking himself off, looking Wade slowly over like he was actually getting off on taking in Wade’s messed-up skin, his hairless scalp. He grunted as he drew a hot stripe over Wade’s cock, catching the rest in his palm.

Wade stretched as he caught his breath, and started to get up. “This is gonna be a really epic walk of shame,” Wade said, “except that I don’t actually have any shame, so the joke’s on my scriptwriter.”

Nate let out a snort. He tucked Wade against him as Wade got to his feet, mess and kill. “I know what you’re doing,” Nate said, sober.

“Getting cleaned up before Miss Hangry comes back up to gut us?”

“Using people to hurt yourself. Using me.”

Wade scowled. “Fuck you. You got off, I got off. What’s your problem?” He didn’t wait for Nate to marshal an answer, twisting out of Nate’s grip and grabbing his clothes off the floor.

#

Something was off between Wade and Nate by the time they finally showed up in the guesthouse cantina, but Laura couldn’t pinpoint it and wasn’t sure if she cared that much. Aisha glanced up as Wade and Nate sat at their table, and waved over serving staff. “Coffee?” Aisha asked.

“God yes, pour that down my throat please.” Wade perked up. “You guys still have coffee? I thought everything now only came in warm or cold Soylent.”

“One of the first things I figured out how to do with my powers was etch new settings on our replicators,” Aisha admitted.

“I approve. Even though Create Food and Water is a cleric spell. Please tell me you guys have actual food too,” Wade said.

“Pancakes?” Aisha grinned at Wade’s enthusiasm.

Seriously? That’s it. I’m staying here. You two can go on without me.” Wade clapped his hands with glee as the serving staff took their orders and retreated. “I take back everything I said about how you really should be able to portal us to our destination. Wizards are awesome.”

Laura rolled her eyes. She’d been unsurprised to see Aisha waiting for her in the cantina—the Sorceror Supreme had struck Laura as the sort who’d want to micromanage every aspect of an anomaly. Just as she’d clearly had a hand in creating Osorio itself. Like the rest of Osorio, the cantina looked like the interior of a building that had been entombed whole. It had once been a restaurant of some sort, with long faux-oak tables and a shiny brass counter, but its long windows looked out to rock and its doors opened into concrete corridors. The guesthouse had been a backpacker’s hotel once, if Laura had to guess. Interconnected apartment blocks were linked up beside it, Osorio’s main residential section. There was Aisha’s Sanctum. Probably other buildings that Laura hadn’t seen and never would. The buried settlement unnerved her.

“Slept all right?” Aisha asked. She smirked faintly at Nate, who coughed and looked away.

“He snores,” Wade said, completely unperturbed. “Also—”

Laura glanced up. Someone had been approaching her from behind, a tall, pale guy with gray eyes and bright green hair. “Hey, I know you,” he said. “You’re Laura. Wolverine’s daughter.”

“Who’re you?” Laura shot back.

“Mike,” Aisha said carefully, “what are you doing here?”

Mike ignored her. “I’ve seen you before. I used to live in Ruyi. The Quarantine Zone that you usually stop over in. Before or after Sundown.”

“Yeah? What’s your point?” Laura asked, narrowing her eyes.

“You’re back out of window early,” Mike said. He was raising his voice. “Any reason?”

“You said it yourself. The window closed,” Laura said.

“Mike, I’ll talk to you later,” Aisha said, rising to her feet. “I’m discussing matters with Laura and—”

“And I want to know what happened,” Mike snapped. “I think it’s a fucking coincidence. Laura here going to Sundown, for another attempt at Ground Zero. Except I think something went wrong this time, didn’t it? The window closed early. The infection’s gone weird. Running hot. And every fucking person who left on survey during the window hasn’t returned. Including my daughter!”

Nate stiffened. Laura exhaled loudly, getting to her feet. She came up to Mike’s shoulder, maybe, but she stood in front of him and folded her arms. “Go on. Hit me.”

Mike flushed with anger. “I don’t… I don’t—what the fuck did you do in Ground Zero? Is this because of you?”

“I don’t have to explain myself to you, cabrón. You pissed? Hit me.” Laura leveled a glare at the murmuring crowd gathering behind Mike. “Anyone else want to? Huh? C’mon out. Form a line. Make me laugh. Tell you cocksuckers what. I won’t even hit back.” She stared up at Mike. “Or you just wanna run your mouths, accusing people of fuckups they didn’t make?”

Mike let out a yell. He drew back his fist and swung. Wade was half out of his seat. The fist stopped right before Laura’s face, and Mike blinked, puzzled.

Nate stood up, his eye glowing a fraction brighter. “Enough.” He walked over, pushing Mike’s hand gently aside.

“Sit back down.” Laura glowered at him. “Not your business, Justicar.”

As she’d thought, the mention of Nate’s title had people whispering to themselves instead of staring at his infected arm. Instead of taking the hint, Nate stared wearily at her. “Enough,” he said, more quietly. Nate looked back up at Mike. “What happened had nothing to do with Laura. You want to blame someone for the mass infection, for Ground Zero? Blame me. I’m what she found at Ground Zero.”

In the immediate uproar, Laura grabbed Nate’s arm and hauled him back to the table, even as Wade got up, his hands twitching. Mike was shouting at Nate, at her, his voice lost in the snarl of rage and disbelief from the crowd, in their hate. And the worst of it was that Laura understood. So did Nate. She watched him take it in without blinking, accepting the anger and grief of strangers. Laura looked around. This was going to get ugly fast.

ENOUGH.” Aisha was floating above the tables, her voice crackling overhead. Light burned in tight mandalas around her wrists and head, her cloak billowing around her. “Everyone. Stand. The fuck. Down. Leave us.” She glared at the crowd until they started to disperse, with a reluctant simmering anger that would probably fester. Once they were alone in the cantina, Aisha drifted down, rubbing a hand over her face.

“Should’ve kept your trap shut,” Laura told Nate, balling up her fists. “Why even talk? He would have hit me once, the crowd would feel bad, then end of story.”

“It was the truth,” Nate said. “If he had to hit anyone he should’ve hit me.”

“You no’ healing factor,” Laura snapped.

“That’s not the point.”

“Your fucking ‘point’ is gonna get us blacklisted out of every Quarantine Zone from here to Three Mile Island!” Laura shoved Nate hard and he stumbled back a step. “Fuck.”

“You don’t have to come with me,” Nate said evenly, straightening up.

“Jesus, you two. Chill out.” Wade squeezed between them. “I’m starting to feel like the world’s most unpaid babysitter. And can I say, when I’m the least violent person in the group there’s something seriously wrong going on.”

Laura backed up with a low growl. With some effort, she swallowed her anger, breathing slowly until she had tamped it down. Then she looked over to Aisha. “We have to go?”

“Yeah.” Aisha pulled a face. “Everyone knows everything that happens in Osorio. There was no hiding you guys coming through. Took them a whole night to put two and two together. Was hoping to defuse the situation, but the Justicar here just had to pour napalm on the fire before I could get a word in.”

“I’ll go. The two of you can stay longer. Recover from the dehydration,” Nate said seriously. “I’ll be fine.”

Laura muttered under her breath. “We all leave,” Laura growled. “No thanks to you.”

“Coffee to go, I guess. Can we get everything to go?” Wade asked Aisha. She sighed.

“I’ll walk the three of you to the gates and get someone to meet us there with your gear and supplies.” Aisha glanced at Laura, then at Nate. She shook her head. “I’m sorry. But given the situation, it’s best that you all leave. Now.”

Chapter Text

The trek west had been grueling and sullen. Laura had kept up an icy silence and Nate hadn’t been inclined to talk. Wade understood Laura’s point about conserving their water supplies, but staying quiet had never been his forte, and the endless slog through endless angular corridors webbed with infection was… boring.

“Did you seriously deactivate everything in this part of the world?” Wade asked. They’d stopped for lunch on a walkway that ringed a massive silo, an old landfill site sunk into the ground and now thick with tendrils.

“I didn’t deactivate anything. Thinking the virus is just holding off on its Critters to save energy. Activating Critters creates heat,” Nate said.

“It’s not as hot as it was coming down to Osorio.” Wade remembered very little of the last leg of that jag, thankfully. He’d probably been semi-conscious, brain cooking gently in his head as his body tried its futile best to die of thirst.

“Yeah, probably. There was a big cortex under Ground Zero. One of the main processing units. Since it was the start of the infection.” Nate glanced further up the rusting walkway, where Laura sat alone, her back pressed to the safety rails over the drop. “There are other processing units now. They all generate a lot of heat. On top of what climate change has already done to urban areas.”

“In other words, even if we do stop the Metalocalypse, the world is already fucked.” Well, that was depressing.

“Yeah. It’s been fucked for a long time. Since you were last kicking around, even.” Nate always ate so quickly, like it was a function he wanted to get over with. He was tucking his pack of Not!Soylent away even as Wade was halfway through his and thinking fondly back on the pancakes that Aisha had sneaked him at the gate. And the coffee.

“Y’know what I miss from when I was last ‘kicking around’? Chicken McNuggets,” Wade said, wistful. “Delicious, golden fried, weirdly shaped, weirdly constituted ‘chicken’ meat nuggets. I actually knew some weirdoes who’d get that with honey as a dip, but I preferred the sweet and sour sauce. I could get through a bucket of McNuggets. Biggest perk of a healing factor, IMO, being able to eat as many McNuggets as I like without torpedoing my kidneys.”

Laura let out a loud snort. “Chicken Nuggets? You serious?”

“Well, that and chimichangas,” Wade conceded.

“What is chimichanga?” Laura asked.

“Deep fried burrito,” Nate said, keeping his tone mild.

Laura made a gagging sound. “What? Americans ruin everything.”

“I’m not American. I’m Canadian. Not that you can get chimichangas in the motherland. What do you miss? About way back?” Wade asked her. Grumpiness was preferable to murderous silence in his books.

“Eh.” Laura tipped her head back, following the immense flank of the silo, broken here and there by arteries that linked it to the opposite silo, to the debris-choked floor below. “Food? Um. Rictor—one of the Founders—was great cook. He would make these big roasts. Asado. First few years of Eden was hard. Just us. But we learned. You?” she asked Nate.

Nate blinked—he’d clearly been expecting Laura to keep pointedly ignoring him. “Ah. Don’t have anything worth remembering from that early on.”

That got Laura to stare at Nate, her expression carefully blank. “When did you… Escape?”

“Not as early as you people did. They were careful after what happened at the Mexican facility. Tried to automate most of the processes. Kept rotating the nursing staff so nobody would get too attached. There were a few of us and a control group. To see which mutation could contain the virus. By the time I was sixteen I was the only survivor from my generation.”

“Guantánamo facility?” Laura asked.

“Yeah. They were also testing it on the people they had locked in there without trial. Efficient system. ‘Terrorists’ who nobody cared about, kids who weren’t meant to exist. Then one day they threw some guy into the prison who turned out to be an Askani Justicar. He managed to call in help.”

“So that’s what happened,” Laura stretched out her legs. “Only knew Guantánamo facility went dark.”

Nate nodded warily. “I signed on after the Askani let me out. Took me a long time to get up to speed with how to live like a normal person. Hell, I couldn’t even read or write. Used to act out. Fly into rages. The Askani helped me control it. Channel it towards the war. And yeah. I know I’m still fucked up. Some of the shit I’ve done… I’ve been told that I was lucky. Kids growing locked up like that, in those kinds of situations… toxic stress is usually the least of it. Developmental issues.”

“Yeah. I seen that. With some of the other Founders. They were never…” Laura trailed off, her hands clenched in her lap. “We hid. For a long time. I won’t apologise for that,” she said, a little belligerently.

“Don’t blame you guys for hiding,” Nate said delicately. “‘Sides. Sentinel War kept you busy.”

“Wow,” Wade said, fascinated. “You two are actually making up. Like adults. I’m shocked.”

Laura rolled her eyes. “We need each other. And I’m nearly a hundred years old. If I stayed angry with everyone who pissed me off I’d have tried to drown myself by now.”

“Tried that. Doesn’t work with a healing factor,” Wade said. He ignored Nate’s startled stare. “Didn’t Aisha say satlink and vidcomms were down? Maybe the other settlements won’t have heard about your little cantina snit.”

“Radio works. Even if Aisha says nothing, other people will say something. Maybe some places I can still talk to. Not my strong point,” Laura admitted.

“Yeah, the situation in the cantina went from ‘Angry Grieving Dad’ to ‘Lynch Mob’ real quick, no thanks to anyone here but me,” Wade said, prodding Nate on his uninfected arm. “Maybe next time I should do the talking.”

“Has that ever worked?” Nate asked, though he smirked faintly.

“No, but anything’s better than you two chuckleheads,” Wade shot back.

Laura let out a wry laugh. “You right. We’re all fucked up.” She actually sounded pleased about it. Or at least amused. She toasted Nate and Wade with her protein pack and drank up. “Where next?” she asked Nate. Nate had a fancy computer embedded in his arm, and Aisha had loaded a map into it, along with all of Osorio’s existing survey data. Laura had looked grudgingly less pissed off after that.

Nate brought up the map in an orange projection against the flank of the silo. “If you really want to head up to the surface, there should be an open pathway up in a few hours.”

“We have to go up? Isn’t that gonna get real hot?” Wade kinda liked it right now. Warm, but not brain-cookingly warm.

“Surface less safe,” Laura told Wade, “but to go west for me is unknown. To go inland. We will get lost. Usually, I go south. There is an offshore outpost. Big ship. The Chimaera.”

“Run by the White King,” Nate said, grimacing.

“Thought you might know. Yeah. He an asshole. Still best way to get to Sundown. Only way to go to New Eden. Or out east. Across sea.”

“What’s he doing this far north?” Nate asked. “Before all this, he used to operate out of Juarez.”

“Half of Mexico is infected. He adapted. Made outposts with ships. Went into trafficking. Moves refugees south. Or east. Strip them of all they have. Some of them disappear. So I hear.” Laura’s eyes were hard. “But without him, no New Eden. Everyone adapts. When the world dies, the vultures become kings.”

#

“I thought you said everyone else was dead,” Wade said. They were behind a Costco just off the I-78E. This part of the Metalocalypse was rather less metal—the occasional great artery humped out of the ground, and some veinwork covered buildings, but several blocks were intact, and the highway was still visible. “Also, I’m starting to think we’ve blown the sfx budget on this sequel. We’re back to fighting plain old humans instead of giant spiders.”

Laura scowled. She was peeking out from behind the main Costco block—they’d been attracted over from afar out of the possibility of salvage. No hope there. The Costco had long been looted, and it smelled like an open-air toilet even from where they were crouched near the loading bay. In the distance past the huge parking lot still a quarter full of abandoned cars, there was a makeshift blockade of furniture and cars over the road. A watchtower of stacked couches and tyres capped it off, with a couple of snipers positioned up top.

“We could take them out easily,” Nate said, shading his eyes. It was mid-afternoon. They were half a day out from the cramped apartment they’d slept in during the night.

“Don’t know about these people,” Laura said, “but if the jeep next to their tower works, we should take it.” The jeep in question was more of a patchwork frame of a car than anything resembling a jeep, papered over with fused solar panels.

“What about all the other cars out there?” Wade gestured at the parking lot.

“One of the first things the infection does when it encroaches into a new area is to consume fuel sources. Especially lithium batteries,” Nate said. He pointed. “Look carefully. Under the cars.” Dark tendrils, on closer inspection, extended up into the belly of each car from the asphalt.

“We charge the watchpost?” Wade asked. He was getting bored anyway.

Laura sighed. She glanced at Wade, then back at the watchpost. “First we talk. We’ll ask for the car.”

“No murder?” Wade tried not to sound disappointed and failed. Laura rolled her eyes. She walked out from behind the Costco, her hands up as she started to cross the parking lot. The people in the watchtower shouted something made unintelligible by the distance, training their rifles on Laura. Wade started to head out, but Nate held him back.

“They won’t be able to kill her. And we’re gonna make things complicated,” Nate said.

“Why, how in the world would a heavily armed guy in red spandex and a heavily armed guy with a gigantic not-compensating-for-anything gun make anything complicated?”

Laura was just past the last row of cars now. She was trying to talk to the sentries, her hands still up. Wade couldn’t hear her from here. Maybe it was working. Laura was gesturing at the car, her posture relaxed. The sentries had lowered their rifles. “They’re infected,” Nate said, his red eye unfocusing.

“So not everyone died.” That was good, right?

“No. It takes years to die from an infection. Even when it’s accelerated nearer Ground Zero. The virus ignores infected biomass. They must have been cast out of Quarantine Zones. Formed their own communes. Those who survived everything else.”

Wade was about to ask Nate to clarify when there was a sudden crack of a rifle shot. Laura jerked back, punched off-balance by a bullet that had gone through her leg. “Uh oh,” Wade said, drawing his pistols. Nate charged out around the Costco, heading for Laura at a dead run. Not that they needed to worry. Laura’s roar of fury echoed against the Costco as she unsheathed her claws and sprinted for the watchtower.

By the time Wade caught up, Laura was crouched over the bodies of the sentries, snarling to herself in Spanish. She sheathed her claws and spat on their bodies. Then she tossed down their weapons and supplies. “Fuck those guys,” Laura said, as she dropped down.

Nate was inspecting the jeep. “Looks jury-rigged. Possibly works.”

“What happened?” Wade asked Laura.

She rolled her eyes. “First they called me a nice piece of meat, then they got bored and said that if I didn’t want to give them blowjobs they’d hurt me before they fuck me. Assholes. It’s always assholes who survive the end of the world.”

“They didn’t survive you,” Wade said, grinning.

“Yeah, well. They’re not here by themselves.” Laura tossed Nate a set of car keys. “Hope this works. Let’s get out of here.”

#

The car worked, thank God. Laura did believe in the Almighty, but she also believed that They were more often than not out to get her. Nate drove, taking the car around pylons in the highway, sometimes having to veer offroad or take detours around blocks to get around blockages. The air was a brilliant blue, and although the car stank of sweat and unwashed bodies, with the windows scrolled down and the broken world passing quickly around them, Laura couldn’t criticise their luck.

Not even with Wade sprawled in the back seat, singing ancient songs off-key. “…Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake—”

“Seriously,” Nate said.

“—shake, shake, I shake it off, I shake it off,” Wade sang, pretending to wipe dust off his shoulder. He wagged his finger at the rearview mirror. “Heartbreakers gonna break, break—”

“That genre of pop died a natural death four decades ago,” Nate said, scowling at Wade’s reflection. “Eventually the world got sick of the Scandinavian song-making machine.”

“What about dubstep?” Wade asked.

“Doesn’t exist anymore either, thank fuck,” Nate said.

Wade threw up his hands. “The humanity! Also, why the hell am I discussing music with an old man?”

Nate rolled his single good eye. “I’m the youngest person in this car, dipshit.”

“…God damn it. This future timeline shit really gives me a headache,” Wade grumbled. “Now you’ve gone and made me feel like a cradle snatcher.”

Nate huffed, amused, even as Laura said, “You are cradle snatcher. Nate less than half your age.”

Only if you count refrigeration time!” Wade scowled.

“Even no’ refrigeration time your brain old,” Laura shot back.

“Haters gonna hate, hate, hate…” Wade stood up through the sunroof. “Oh sheeet. We actually have the budget for a car chase scene? Fuck yes.”

Nate glanced at the rearview mirror even as Laura twisted around. Bikers were angling out from a warehouse, all of them wearing the same patchwork gear as the sentries, marked with the same white inked drawing of an open eye. Some had guns, others had machetes. Their electric bikes hummed loudly as they gained, hooting and hollering. “Laura, take over,” Nate said, shifting in the driver’s seat.

“No. You drive.” Laura grabbed Nate’s rifle from the back seat, turning up the dial and leaning out of the passenger window. She braced the gun against her shoulder and fired. The concussive blast jerked her back against the frame of the car, the air distorting as it funneled outwards, catching the closest biker right in the face and crumpling him off his bike.

“I want a go with that gun,” Wade whined.

“1-0, noob,” Laura said, and smirked as Wade squawked in indignation. He fired at another biker, missing the first shot, knocking him bouncing on the road with the next, then it got messy as the bikers caught up all at once. A heavyset man yelled as he jumped from his bike to the car, his infected hands crunching metal as they grasped the frame. Laura shoved her first set of claws through his heart with a yell, the second through his neck, and kicked him off. Wade was wrestling with someone in the back seat, each of them trying to get at their knives. Laura fired the rifle out of the window, taking out another biker. She tried to climb up to the back to help Wade and yelled as someone grabbed her from the outside and yanked.

Hitting the ground hurt. Laura probably tore up half of her face as she went under a bike. She came up with a scream of rage, pouncing and cutting off the head of the guy who’d grabbed her. A concussive blast flung her against a lamp post, cracking it. As she tried to get up, snarling, a net was thrown over her, weighted down. She tried to rip it with her claws, getting tangled up, blindly kicking. Beyond, Nate was taking the jeep around in a tight arc, slapping a biker into a wall then taking the jeep forward and right over someone else. Wade was laughing like a maniac, the big rifle in his arms. He turned it to the highest setting, fired, and yelped as the kickback knocked him out of the car.

By the time Laura cut herself free, Wade was picking off survivors and looking disappointed. Nate was searching the bodies. “They’re all infected,” Nate told Laura, as she came over. Her face itched where the skin was regrowing.

“Lot more of them than I thought,” Laura said, sheathing her claws. The Quarantine Zones were usually located near the coasts or rivers, for ease of resupply via the White King.

“Good,” Wade said, as he climbed back into the jeep. “We could give Weta and the CG guys a break and hand over this whole bit to Makeup.”

Laura started to ask who Weta was and went still instead, jogging up to the jeep. Down the road, past great pylons arching down from a Walmart, a dust-cloud was rising. Another jury-rigged car, but only one. Nate took his gun from Wade and raised it to his shoulder, hesitating as the car got closer. Someone was standing through the sunroof, waving a white piece of cloth. He glanced at Laura, who gave a half-shake of her head. They weren’t here to murder every human in their path, infected or not.

The newcomers stopped at a respectful distance. They were all women in combat fatigues or jeans, all armed, though none of them had drawn their guns. The oldest, a silver-haired Chinese woman, poked her head out of the side of the car. “Laura Howlett? Daughter of the Wolverine?”

“Yeah?” Laura asked warily. “Who the hell are you? And how’d you know we were here?”

“The badlands aren’t safe during the daytime. Follow us and I’ll give you the full picture once we’re out safe,” the woman said.

Laura sneered. “If you think I’m gonna follow a stranger—”

“We listen in on the radio signal out of Osorio,” the woman interrupted. “And if we know you’re headed west, everyone listening in these parts does too. You wanna fight them all, it’s your choice. You've all been blackballed from the other settlements. No supplies. Definitely no help. We're the only options you guys have now.”

“What’s your name?” Laura asked. The woman had a point. Not that Laura technically minded having to slog westwards, but it would slow them down. They didn't have the supplies for that.

“Athena,” the woman said. “My friends here are Fatima and Eliza.” The other women waved.

“Athena…” Nate frowned, his eye flaring briefly. “You’re Justicar Athena Lee. You’re a long way from Hong Kong.” As Athena’s friendly smile froze, Nate gestured at himself. “I’m Nate. Nate Summers.”

Athena stared at Nate in surprise, then looked him slowly over. “Dayspring…? Huh. I thought you were dead. I also thought you’d be taller.”

“Think we’ll be fine,” Nate told Laura.

“Why doesn’t she know your face?” Wade cut in. “Aren’t you some super famous guy in your not!cult?”

“We didn’t share personal information like visual IDs. When that shit leaks…” Nate trailed off, shuddering. “Let’s say I’m still regretting that.”

“Heard about your wife and kid,” Athena said soberly. “I’m sorry. Even if it’s years late to say it.”

“You vouch for her?” Laura asked Nate. At his nod, she exhaled and got into the jeep. “Fine. Drive.”

Chapter Text

Wade was weirdly excited as they followed Athena’s car into the enclosed compound. The facility looked like it had been military at one point in time, walled off with watchtowers and an outer and inner section. For such a large compound, it was surprisingly virus-free. The walls facing the compound were all painted a uniform storm gray, as were the outer walls of the squat buildings. Rangy kids playing basketball in an exercise yard paused to stare as they went past, the forgotten ball thumping in the dirt.

Everyone was infected, judging from the scent. It wasn’t visible on Athena, who was walking beside Laura, but the same machine-chemical stink came off her under her clothes. Just as it did from Nate. “How many people here?” Laura asked, impressed. Past the exercise yard, the grounds had been converted into farmland, where people young and old toiled over rows of green vegetables. Vegetables.

“Few hundred.” Athena followed Laura’s stare. “You wanna ask about the food.”

“How did you people…?” Laura trailed off. Even in New Eden they had to eat protein slurries. The ocean was dead.

“Seed repositories. And scavenged farm tech. It’s still hit and miss. Sometimes we lose whole harvests,” Athena said. “Drone pollination still uneven.”

“Why is this part of the end of the world more Walking Dead than Metalocalypse?” Wade asked.

“Lead paint. Lots of it. With some extra compounds.” Athena shot Nate an awkward grimace. “It was from the research out of Guantanamo. Refined back in our Shanghai HQ. Surprisingly easy to make in bulk.”

Nate nodded, indifferent. “Whatever works. How’d you end up in this part of the world? Last I heard you were in charge of Hong Kong’s chapter. Getting in line to maybe succeed Mother Askani.”

“I got infected. Because I made a bad call. This was before the WHO and the UN started to panic. I was in an Askani taskforce. We thought reports coming out of New York were being downplayed.” Athena slapped her stomach, making a dull thunking sound. “Yeah. They fucking were. We weren’t prepared. I got too close.”

They went around the biggest concrete block, heading for a squat one to the far left. Most of the people they passed were women. All of them were armed. Many had the dead-eyed look of survivors who had gone through hell and back, and not necessarily because of the alien virus they carried. Laura rubbed absently at her knuckles, where her claws would sit if unsheathed. “What do you do with the people who are too far gone?” Laura asked. Everyone here was less than three quarters infected. She was surprised. It’d been years, and they weren’t that far from Ground Zero. Maybe it was the lead paint.

“Once they’re… no longer with us? We let them go at the gate. They usually stumble for a bit and then melt into one of the brainstems.” Athena pointed. Rising far to the west beyond a watchtower was a huge arched artery, gleaming in the sun. “Reckon the virus is trying to find out more about us.”

“And it didn’t try to flood you guys with giant spiders?” Wade sounded disappointed. “The secret final weapon is paint? What the flying fuck.”

“Don’t mind him, he likes to run his mouth,” Nate said, as Athena frowned at Wade and the women flanking them started to scowl. Same women from the car, probably trusted lieutenants, judging from their body language. Fatima was close to Athena’s age, her worn hijab tucked into battered body armour. Eliza looked young, though Laura couldn’t be sure—most of her face was already missing, as was her hair, subsumed under infection. The rest of her skin flickered restlessly from earth-brown to pale downy scales.

Athena led them to a cramped war room. There were maps projected onto the windowless walls. The floor was thick with cabling and generators. There were chairs flush against the side and a table that was ill-used under a pile of equipment that Laura couldn’t identify. As Eliza closed the door behind them, Athena clapped her hands. Wade jerked back a step as the floor under their feet lit up as a holographic map.

“This is some serious CNN shit,” Wade said, circling the tiny model of the base they were in. “I’m expecting Wolf Blitzer to come out of the air vents at any moment.”

“CNN?” Athena asked, puzzled. “CNN hasn’t existed for three decades. They were purchased by Sina Corp way back.”

“Seriously? What about McDonalds? Amazon? Disney? All these huge US corporations that got rich off paying a large number of their workers a less-than-living wage?” Wade let out a deep sigh. “Got to love late-stage capitalism. It’s so American. Like apple pie.”

“What’s apple pie?” Laura asked, then laughed as Wade’s masked eyes went wide with horror. “Kidding.”

“You are a cruel, cruel woman,” Wade said sadly.

Athena looked to Nate for an explanation. Nate scratched at his jaw. “Wade here literally was sort of in a long coma until very recently. He survived it because he has a healing factor. Weird story.”

“Two people with healing factors? Huh. No wonder you got to Ground Zero this time,” Athena told Laura. “I’d like to know the details.”

“What have you heard?” Laura asked instead. Reassurance from Nate or not, Laura hadn’t survived this long by trusting to the grace of strangers.

“A radio broadcast out of Osorio. Wasn’t on their official frequency. It didn’t mention Wade by name or by ability. Only you. And a Justicar. That’s why I was curious enough to round up the girls and drive down,” Athena said. She slouched into a chair and looked up at Nate. “Do I want to know why you were at Ground Zero? How’d all this get so out of hand?”

“Money in politics!” Wade quipped.

Nate ignored him. “I killed Firefist by infecting him. Something wrong happened after that. Trying to stop it now.”

“So you’re really a telepath. I heard the rumours. That’s how you knew who I was?” Athena asked.

Nate nodded. “Mother Askani likes to keep things quiet.”

Too quiet, if you ask me. I don’t know what’s been going on at HQ, but their response to the virus has been cagey at best,” Athena said.

“You mean batshit,” Fatima said, as she sat down beside Athena, straight-backed.

“Batshit’s normal for everyone now,” Eliza said. Her voice had the weird electronic burr of a late-stage throat TO infection. “You guys saw the news coming out of Europe. Closed borders manned by snipers, giant camps of the displaced.”

“So, pretty much the same as it was from my time period.” Wade had wandered over to the far end of the room, where a hologram of something gigantic sat, a podlike sphere of tangled metallic skeins. He ran his fingers through it. “There was this game sniper lines liked to play in Syria. They were still playing it in 2018. They’d target one kinda body part one day, another on another day. Shoot everyone in range. Monday could be kids, pregnant women, in the leg. Tuesday could be the shoulder. Ah, people.” He looked up as the silence stretched. “Something I said?”

“Beginning to think the world has been fucked for a long time and it’s only now starting to die rapidly,” Eliza said slowly, her eyes unfocusing.

Fatima chuckled, a warm, rich sound that Laura liked. “My family barely survived the Saudis and their Hundred-Year War in Yemen. And now. Bloodline’s just been a long time in dying.” Her infection had taken both arms and some of her throat. She stared at Laura with her still-intact eyes. “If it’s true, and you have some way to stop the alien virus for good? I’ll fight for that.”

“The virus is focused on doing something in Three Mile Island. I don’t know what,” Nate said carefully. “And I don’t want to spend lives on something that could end up to be nothing. If you can spare us any supplies and survey data, that’ll be generous enough.”

“You won’t get close to Three Mile Island without us,” Athena said. She made a gesture, flattening out the hologram under their feet to a map. A road snaked past rivers and zones marked out in red, orange, and yellow. The compound, marked as Fort Wise, was on the far right. Three Mile Island came up on the far left, a dot in a gray pixellated morass. The zones in front of it were rings of red. “Red zones are Raider areas. There are a few bands of them. Mostly cannibalistic.”

“I see we moved from the Metalocalypse right into a Fallout aesthetic,” Wade said, grinning under his mask. “I like it.”

“We’ll risk it,” Laura said. It couldn’t be worse from trekking up to Sundown and back, a journey that she often made alone.

“You don’t understand. Three Mile Island is a heavily patrolled area. The Raiders have a ceasefire there, where they fight for territory elsewhere. They worship something in there, we think. Nothing gets near,” Athena said. She zoomed into the region around Three Mile Island with a gesture. Watchtowers and walls of debris sprung up in the projection. “This is only a reconstruction. We got it out of the last drone survey we sent out. Not that it got far. Once you get too close to Three Mile Island, anything electronic tends to fail.” She stared pointedly at Nate. “Which includes gravimetric shields.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Nate said.

“So that wasn’t telekinesis?” Wade asked. He pouted through the mask. “Aww.”

“There’s a possible way in. Underground,” Eliza said. She glanced at Athena, who shrugged. “It’ll be risky.”

“Risky’s not the right word. Near-impossible, maybe,” Fatima said sourly. “You’d have to get through an army of raiders. Like the ones you faced before you got here. Gun-happy assholes. All the nutjobs of the fringe, out of control.”

“In my time, we call that kinda thing being ‘economically anxious’, I think. ‘Asshole’ is so… uncivil. Surely there’s a civil way to end this whole Metalocalypse shit. Otherwise, what will the world come to?” Wade laughed at whatever he saw on Laura’s face. “Kidding.”

Laura rolled her eyes. “Very funny.”

#

Fort Wise actually had real food, even if it was all vegan. Still, since pancakes were now a semi-distant memory, Wade ate hamster food with the best of them and washed it down with his emergency can of soda in the mess hall. Nate and Laura were still in a boring meeting with Athena, which left Wade well to his own devices.

Even heavily repurposed, Fort Wise was visibly military in origin, with its clean lines and utilitarian blocky rooms. Wade had always felt vaguely reassured by military bases. He’d spent a great deal of his early adulthood in one or the other. At that point in his life, enlistment had been a not-always-welcome return to order after a childhood of one dysfunction to another. Even after Wade had chosen to leave CSOR, terminal at sergeant, he’d felt at ease in places like this. He walked slowly around the blocks, checking out the towers from afar. They’d been given spare beds in a section of the barracks that clearly doubled as a palliative care area. It was empty at the moment, but Wade recognised the pall, the faint stink that non-hospital-grade detergent couldn’t erase.

Wade pulled off his boots and mask and hung up his gear. He picked a bunk at random and lay down. Stared at the wall for a bit. Closed his eyes to rest them and woke up again when Nate nudged in behind him with a yawn. Wade looked up blearily. “Where’s Pocket Rocket?”

“Went off with Fatima, I think.”

“Wow, okay. Didn’t think Laura had a mode outside of ‘murder’ and ‘park’.”

Nate shrugged, clearly disinterested in the details as he nuzzled the back of Wade’s neck. “Problem?”

“No? What. You do? I wouldn’t be surprised—”

“What? It’s the future, dipshit. Nobody fucking cares about that anymore.”

“So the future’s not all doom and gloom.” Wade twisted around in Nate’s arms. Nate had stripped down to his fatigues, giving Wade a nice close-up view of the chiseled angles of his chest, the harsh lines of infection. As Wade ran his fingertips over the steel ropes running over Nate’s ribs, Nate grunted and shifted.

“Go to sleep.”

“Tickles?” Wade asked.

“Nah. Sleep. Tired.”

“We’re really going to ride out with the Vuvalini 2.0? That didn’t turn out so good for Furiosa,” Wade said doubtfully. “I mean, sure, it’ll look cool, but this show will definitely get into trouble if we murder even more women characters just to advance the plot.”

“It’s up to Athena. I tried to talk her out of it.” Nate’s tone indicated that he hadn’t exactly tried very hard. “Looking at the data, she’s right. Getting through to Three Mile Island is going to be tough with brute force. Especially if electronics stop working once we’re close. And you two are out of serum.”

“So what’s the plan?” Wade asked.

Nate grunted. “We’re not sure yet. Probably think it over tomorrow. Look at the problem from all angles.”

Top brass stuff. Strategies. Yawwwn. “We should’ve stolen Aisha’s replicators.”

“You got something against vegetables?” Nate sounded amused.

“Not when they’re deep fried in potato form. When they’re potatoes in deep-fried forms. One of those.”

“Monoculture as you know it hasn’t existed for decades,” Nate said. “Particularly the mass farming of animals. Thanks for nothing. Fucking up the climate for steaks.”

“Don’t diss it until you’ve tried a really juicy, all-American, prime dry-aged rib-eye,” Wade said reverently. “Medium rare, still bleeding, lots of chips. Sweet baby Jesus. What I wouldn’t give for that right now.”

Nate sniffed. “I’ll pass.”

“Or for a deep-fried chimichanga. Ooh. Or a bucket of Chicken Nuggets. Even that greasy fucked up oil pocket McDonalds calls an apple pie. Or an In an’ Out burger. Or a pile of tacos. Any flavour. I’d even eat the weird-ass cactus ones at this point. Ice cream! I miss ice cream. Edible cookie dough. Fish and chips—”

Nate leaned over to kiss him, a gentle brush that grew unhurried as Wade tucked his hands up over Nate’s shoulders. They kissed as Nate nudged a thigh between Wade’s legs, until they were grinding slowly together and Wade was forgetting what he’d missed from the world before. Nate was anchoring him in a dead world that wasn’t his, and Wade didn’t care. It was hard to care.

Whenever Ness was in a mood like this, for something slow and sweet and tender, she wouldn’t be able to stop giggling and grinning. They’d both crack jokes, until sex was like falling in love with each other all over again, like an affirmation of what they already loved about each other. Nate—Wade didn’t love Nate, and he was pretty sure Nate was the same way. If they were chasing echoes from the dead this sure didn’t feel like it. Nate was quiet. He looked Wade right in the eyes whenever they broke for air. Wasn’t thinking about anyone else. There were no jokes, no promises of forever.

Nate made a surprised sound as Wade got his thumbs into the waistband of Nate’s pants and tugged roughly. Getting Nate’s pants and underwear off was easy enough. Wade ignored Nate’s attempts to peel off the rest of his spandex gear, spitting in his palm and stroking Nate’s firming cock instead. He wished he could see it—it was too dark. Still felt good in his hand, big and heavy. Nate cursed in Wade’s ear, the light from his eye blinding up close. He shoved Wade onto his front and dragged Wade’s pants down to his knees, tangling them both up. Yelped as Wade accidentally kicked him in the kidneys. Then Nate started to laugh, startled by his own amusement, hoarse deep chuckles that got Wade snickering as well as he finally lent a hand. Nate nuzzled his throat, already breathing hard, his cock pressing eager and slick against Wade’s ass.

“So when do I get to top?” Wade asked facetiously, and Nate went still.

“Sure. If you want. I need more than spit, though.” Nate even sounded apologetic.

Wade shot him an incredulous look over his shoulder. “I was joking.”

“I wasn’t.”

“Well, I got that. Uh.”

Nate sniffed. “Make up your damn mind. You want to keep going, fine. You want to go steal supplies off the base and fuck me instead, fine.”

“…Gonna disappoint some of my fans and hold that thought for a time when I’m more prepared,” Wade decided, making a mental note to swing by the kitchens after breakfast. Nate kissed his shoulders as he eased Wade open with a lot more care than Wade actually needed. He ignored Wade as Wade squirmed pointedly and tried to hurry things along by grinding down against Nate’s fingers, by cursing him in garbled gasps.

“If you don’t hurry up we’re gonna get caught again,” Wade said, head bent against his arms, “and I’m not gonna stop if we are so we’d end up giving Angrypants an eyeful and she’d probably stab us both repeatedly.”

“Think she’s spending the night elsewhere,” Nate said, and fucking slowed down even more because he was a dick. He nuzzled kisses over Wade’s spine, over his shoulder blades. Ran his tongue over pitted skin and lumps like he genuinely liked the texture, as though he wanted Wade just the way Wade was. Made soft grateful sounds as Wade groaned and rolled his hips against Nate’s fingers. Wade didn’t really get it. Sex he understood. Some people would fuck anything, let alone military people right before a mission. It was a dark room and Wade was a warm body. But other than Ness, people didn’t generally fuck Wade because they liked him. It was weird.

“You’re gonna die of old age by the time you get around to fucking me,” Wade said, trying to goad Nate into hurrying up. Nate merely laughed. Kept being amused until he was finally satisfied and Wade had run out of curses. When he eased into Wade it was no longer a brutal fit, but it made Wade breathless anyway, made him bite the pillow and squeeze his eyes shut. Nate exhaled once he was balls deep, satisfied, and it was easier for Wade to whine and spread his legs further than come up with a quip. Come up with another line of defense. Jokes had always been Wade’s way of pushing back against things that hurt him. Sometimes he used humour to hurt it back. Nate twisted the fingers of his uninfected hand with Wade’s and licked the sweat off the back of Wade’s neck. It felt too damn good being this full. Wade should feel guilty about that but he couldn’t.

“All right?” Nate whispered.

“Yeah.” Wade’s voice cracked. Nate stiffened. He started to pull back and stopped as Wade grabbed blindly at his hip, digging his nails into the segments and cords of his infected side and hauling. “C’mon. Hurry the fuck up.”

Nate obeyed without comment. Kept it slow but it wasn’t like making love, not with this much baggage weighing them both down. Wade moaned at each thrust, angling his hips up to meet Nate, clenched down to hear Nate growl and curse against his skull. Fingers pushed against Wade’s cock, fumbling until they got a clean grip. Felt good but it was an uneasy fit, like they were both trying for something they didn’t deserve. “Breathe,” Nate kept murmuring against his back, “breathe.” Should’ve been funny but it wasn’t. Wade lost track of time, swallowed in the inexorable push of Nate’s hips against him, the tight fit of his cock in the fist of Nate’s fingers. Something was coming loose deep down, unscrewing itself. Guilt and grief. He was letting go. Nate made a hoarse sound pressed behind his ear, as though he felt the same. They were learning to let go, learning to let someone else in. Nate’s groans were jagged against Wade’s shoulders, hot and wet. He drove in with a couple of sharp jerks and went still, his cock pulsing.

“Fuck you—finish what you started,” Wade gasped as Nate pulled out. Nate rolled Wade onto his back and kissed him, jacking him harder, too dry, too rough. Wade shoved his hips up and sank down, gasping. Release felt like it had been dragged out of him and torn free. Nate buried his mouth against Wade’s throat, his soiled hand splayed over Wade’s belly. They breathed.

Chapter Text

Wade leered at Laura as she checked the electric bike over. “Late night, huh?”

Laura rolled her eyes. “Like two of you didn’t spend it fucking. And night before that.”

Nate coughed but said nothing. His personal computer had already scanned their bikes and deemed them functional. Laura just preferred not to trust computers in matters of life and death. They were on all-terrain bikes loaned from Forth Wise, sleek and solar-charged. Each bike had a full battery—they’d take them to Three Mile Island and back, easy. In a best-case scenario.

They were underground, to the southwest of Fort Wise. The tunnel was virus-made with a prefab machine, judging from the weird angular lines fused at uneven intervals with arteries and pylons. According to Athena, if they headed due west along any of the larger tunnels they would eventually get to Three Mile Island.

Laura yawned. It had been a late night. She scrubbed her hand through her hair and got on the bike. Nodded at Nate, who eased back on his bike and did something that created a small orange sphere over his infected arm. “Ready,” he said.

“We’re in position,” Athena said from the sphere. “Things are gonna get kinetic real quick.”

“Fall back when you have to,” Nate said, even though Laura knew Athena and the others weren’t going to retreat. She’d seen it in their eyes yesterday when they’d hashed out this plan together in the war room. Athena, Eliza—hell, even Fatima and some of the others had come to Fort Wise to die. They’d long accepted that there was no cure. They’d just been waiting for a way to make their deaths count for something.

“Stick to the plan,” Athena retorted. “No matter what. Ready ladies?” she yelled at a squad Laura could not see.

Faint whoops and whistles crackled through Nate’s two-way. Over the noise, Fatima shouted something about being ‘born ready’ and laughed. “They’re all going to die,” Wade said philosophically. “It’s one of those stories. First named person to die outside of the prologue was the black character and I guess the women are next? Typical Hollywood.”

“Everyone dies,” Laura said. She leaned over and patted Wade on the shoulder, grinning. “Even us. Someday.” The wolfish mood from Athena and the others had been contagious. Laura had been keyed up since leaving Fort Wise. Her knuckles itched.

“Someday,” Wade echoed, though he sounded considerably more playful rather than serious. As Nate shifted uncomfortably in his seat yet again, Wade smirked through his mask. “Aww baby, I did offer to receive rather than give.”

“Clearly I don’t make good life decisions,” Nate muttered.

“Lots of people are gonna be disappointed about this particular life decision of yours taking place offscreen.” Wade peered down the corridor. Light came in through a narrow slat from the roof, a drainage seam that collected water below in a fast-moving canal. “How come our Brave Leader didn’t get to do a pep talk? I thought that was more or less an inevitable Hollywood plot device nowadays. We’re literally trying to cancel the apocalypse here, and we didn’t get an Independence Day-esque pep talk?”

“Not good at talks,” Laura said.

“We’re going in,” Athena said, tense with excitement and anticipation. “See you guys on the other side.” She said something else in a harsh language that Laura didn’t recognise. Nate replied in kind. The ball over his arm faded.

The acceleration bucked the bike against Laura as she shot down the corridor, ducking under arteries and speeding around pylons. The bikes were silent save for a low electronic whine that purred in Laura’s ears as she hopped hers over a vein and swerved around a spike.

Wade pulled up easily beside her, grinning hugely through his mask. He angled the bike to swerve under an overhang and curled it around an artery with a stunt driver's ease. “If we’re going to die in a few hours and a bit,” Wade told her, “I just wanna say, I’ve had a lot of fun.”

Laura laughed. She couldn’t help it, even though she wanted to bite down on the mirth, remind Wade that this wasn’t funny, tell Wade to be serious. “Glad I found you in that Nutella tin,” Laura said instead, and she meant it. Unstable, obnoxious, chaotic, unkempt, and psychotic as Wade was, he was fun. As much as Laura couldn’t really stand to be around Wade for extended periods of time, and was hoping to take a long break from him after this—if they survived—Wade was one of the few people she’d met in her long, long life that made living more interesting.

“Thanks for letting me out of that,” Wade said. He fell back behind her as the corridor narrowed. They were getting close to a larger sector, judging from the smell of the air, rich with human-scents and cooking grease and machine-sickness. Laura angled her bike around a pylon and jumped it onto a lower, wider ledge, almost skidding out into the drain. Righting her balance with a squeal of tyres, she sped along the ledge until she came to the point of entry Athena had mentioned, a boarded-up opening in a wall striped with infection. Blasting it open with a borrowed pistol from Fatima, Laura accelerated, ducking down to clear the low ceiling.

They burst out into a large chamber dotted with cooking drums and gritty with smoke, ill-ventilated. People in various stages of infection yelled and scattered, some fleeing, some pulling out weapons. Laura sped past them, swerving around tables and overturned chairs. Skeletal security. The diversion above ground was working. Behind her, Wade was yelling something unintelligible over the noise. A shotgun went off with a roar like a grenade, blasting out her hearing into a dull background ringing. Laura jumped her bike over a bench and sped up a ramp, fishtailing around a couple of guards who tried to dive for her.

The ledge she was on ran along the chamber as it sectioned off into living quarters. Laura snuck a glance over her shoulder. She couldn’t see Wade or Nate, though flashes of gunfire from the scrum indicated at least someone was still fighting. At the far end of the chamber was a wall of debris and a gate that people were starting to push closed. Laura jumped her bike down, snarling as someone fired a round that blasted through her shoulder and nearly knocked her off her bike.

She skidded her bike into the closest guard and pulled the trigger, turning the head of the next into a coiled mist. People jumped on her, pulling her off her bike, and Laura roared as she let the claws come. She shoved her claws up into the bodies again her and kicked free, scrambling out from the pack as people screamed and choked. Someone fired a shotgun at close range, blasting her off her feet and into a wall. Fuck. That always hurt. Shotgun guy opened his mouth into a scream that Laura couldn’t hear as she merely staggered and picked herself up, awful wounds and all. A serum shot would’ve been great right now. As Laura advanced on him, he reloaded frantically. Raised the shotgun again, just as Wade swerved up behind him and cut his head off.

As Laura righted her bike, her wounds were already spitting out buckshot. Nate was by the closed gate. He pushed, his infected flank and arm making an ugly whirring noise that she could dimly hear as her ears recovered. Wade picked off someone on the watchtower, holstered his gun and kicked his bike into a lunge, mowing another guard down. Laura yelled and shoved her claws through the chest of someone charging her with a baseball bat. She kicked off the body and shot a guy with a rifle lining up on the ledge.

“Go! Go!” Nate barked. The gate was open. Laura didn’t wait for Wade. She dragged her bike around and sped through, ducking low as bullets whined overhead. Wade was next, laughing maniacally, then Nate, twisting in his seat to fire a calibrated blast with his rifle that bucked the gate closed.

The floodlights cast long shadows in the wide tunnels as they left the raider camp behind, the bars on their suits lighting up. No pursuit—everyone with vehicles was above ground. Laura took in a steady breath and sped up. That had been the easy part.

#

Athena stopped answering Nate’s comm calls half an hour ago, but Wade only guessed they crossed into the dead zone when their bikes cut out. “This is the problem with green technology,” Wade complained, as they rested their bikes against the wall, “it clearly isn’t designed for a Mad Max world. That, and riding that bike felt like I was riding an iPad.”

“An iPad?” Nate asked.

“…Stop making me feel old,” Wade said sadly. “It’s fucking with my head. You look older than me but you’re not and even just thinking about that makes me want to curl up into a fetal position.”

“Serious now,” Laura growled. “Quiet.” She cracked her knuckles and started forward, the bars on her clothes lighting up the shallow drain to her right.

The large tunnel past the start of the dead zone lost definition and cohesion quickly, going from clean angular lines into a morass of smaller corridors, many of them visibly ending in nothing. Stairs climbed against ceilings, pipes ran along the walls without earthing themselves into anything. The infection pulsed over it all in thin webs, breathing to a slow heartbeat.

Nate took point, looking around with an uncomfortable past to his pale face. Recalling memories that he shouldn’t have. He stepped over the drain towards a ropy bridge to a distant ledge and froze. A pale woman had appeared. She hovered several feet away, her hands loose at her sides, most of her face covered by thick brown hair. Half of her body and dress had been burned into a charred and sticky surface. She said nothing.

“Nate,” Wade said. He reached for Nate, but Nate sidestepped out of reach.

“I’m sorry,” Nate told her, his hands clenched into fists. “The days after, I thought. Should’ve, could’ve. I shouldn’t have been away so much. I wasn’t much of a husband. Not much of a father. I could’ve insisted on us leaving New York years ago for Shanghai back when Hope was born. The schools there are better anyway and Sanctuary is safer—” Nate’s voice cracked. He took a few slow breaths as the ghost watched him. When he spoke again, his tone was even.

“The thing is, I know you’re not even Louise. Ghosts don’t exist. You’re just… just something stolen from me. I never even saw you like this. You were dead by the time I got to you. Burned to nothing.” Nate exhaled. “So, I’m sorry. But I’m going through you. I’ve got to make things right. For everything else I’ve broken. Every other family that turned into collateral damage because I let my personal fuckups get the better of me.”

Nate walked forward. Wade didn’t even realize he’d stopped breathing—he sucked in a thin breath as Laura took a step over. The Lady raised her ruined face to look at Nate with eyes she no longer had. She stayed still as Nate got closer, until he embraced her. They stayed that way, frozen in time for what felt like a forever moment. The Lady began to flicker, the edges of her growing dissonant and scratchy with static. She disappeared, never there.

“C’mon,” Nate said, subdued. He started to walk.

#

“This is some Indiana Jones Temple of Doom shit,” Wade whispered. They were looking down from a high ledge at a huge congregation in a massive chamber, easily as large as a football field. Infected people in patchwork robes were chanting in slow-moving circles around a slab of stone, sidestepping bumps of viral superstructure over the ground. On the dais was the Dead Man. His mouth was open in a silent scream, his body twitching and jerking as the virus consumed it forever, ebbing out through his chest, swarming up over his fingers.

Laura watched Nate’s face carefully. Nate had frozen in surprise when he’d recognised the Dead Man on the dais. A look of hatred quickly contorted his features, his hand going up to his rifle. Wade grabbed his wrist. “Ghosts aren’t real, remember?” Wade said.

“Yeah.” Nate shuddered. “Yeah.”

“So just move on,” Wade said. He slipped his hand down to Nate’s palm and squeezed it. “You killed him anyway. He’s gone. And it looks like it hurt.”

“Didn’t fix anything. Didn’t make me feel any better.” Nate stared down at the congregation. He looked exhausted, as though the days behind them and the years before that were catching up, wearing him down.

“Shit like this? Never makes you feel better. ‘Cos it’s not meant to. It’s just something people like us do because we don’t know what else to do. People kill something and we kill them back. Some get to find something worth dying for.” Wade glanced at Laura. “Like your dad. Don’t ask me how I know, it’s a continuity fuckup. But some of us who are really lucky find something worth living for. Hey, who wrote this dialogue? Is this even a ‘me’ thing to say? Shouldn’t these be Laura’s lines?”

Laura shook her head, though she smiled. She stepped over and slapped Wade on the shoulder, then went around Nate. “You need a moment?” she asked Nate, as kindly as she could.

“Nah.” Nate leaned over, kissing Wade on the cheek. “Thanks. For trying to help. Even if you have a fucked up way of going about it.”

“You’re welcome, you sad bastard,” Wade said, and kissed him back without lifting his mask. “C’mon. Let’s get out of here before the Temple of Doom becomes all Wicker Man and shit. I hate bees.”

Nate didn’t budge. “Guess I don’t know what brought him to this point. The Hellfire King. Heard he’s over a hundred years old. Lucked into some bioengineering anti-aging serum that actually worked. Thing is, I’m not even that angry at him anymore. I’m angry at myself. I used to hunt people like him like I was hunting animals. Burn down their ops and salt the earth they walked on. Kill them without bringing them in for a trial. And yeah, the Askani tend to leave nothing standing behind us,” Nate said to Laura. She inclined her head. “So I get why he thought he had to go after me the way he did. He knew he was gonna die eventually under my hands. He just wanted to make his death hurt me. The way all the other deaths to my name haven’t.”

“Some people deserve to die,” Laura said. It’d been a guiding tenet of her own life, of her father’s before her. Or so she’d heard.

“Maybe. But you and I, we know that people don’t turn to this kinda life easily. Only people who are fucked up inside kill other people without batting an eye. Sleep later without death haunting them. I know almost everything worth knowing about Russell Collins. And yet. If I could’ve stopped it somehow, if I’d been given an option to turn him onto a better path? I know I wouldn’t have taken it. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me to take it. I’ve probably killed more people than Firefist has. Only real difference between us is I’m alive and he isn’t.”

“Doubt you’ve burned women and children to death,” Laura said, though she frowned.

“I’ve broken communities. Destroyed social structures.” Nate visibly shook himself. “I guess what I wanna say is. I think I actually forgive him. It’s been years. He took everything from me, but I know how he got to this point.” Nate rubbed his fingers over the back of his head, to the edge of his shave. “Let’s keep going.”

#

Wade hadn’t been sure what to expect in the heart of Three Mile Island. A giant machine helpfully marked ‘Nuclear Reactor’, maybe. A huge, helpfully obvious off-switch in red against a wall surrounded by the bad guys. Wasn’t this a Hollywood film? Instead, Three Mile Island was unrecognisable. Wade had vague memories of seeing photos in the papers from the disaster. He’d been three years old at the time, and it’d been big enough news that his father had spent days talking it over in hushed tones at breakfast, pointing at the photos. It’d been a nice reprieve from the usual at that point in time in Wade’s life, with his alcoholic father unemployed and usually in a murderous mood.

“What happened to the giant tower thingies?” Wade asked, as they walked down another corridor, disregarded another fork in the tunnel. “Are we above sea level right now? Below sea level?”

“The Three Mile Island you knew was decommissioned in 2019,” Nate said, as he led them down another dark and narrow space between infected strands. “It was recommissioned over two decades later as a large scale thorium fusion reactor. It powers all the Eastern Seaboard states.”

Thorium? Do we have the rights for that?”

“It’s an actual material, dipshit. Safer processes. Doesn’t go into meltdown. Can’t be used to make weapons.”

“Why isn’t the future solar powered?” Wade asked. “Or arc reactor powered? Tony Stark isn’t a thing in this ‘verse yet? I thought Disney was Definitely Probably buying over Fox.”

“Don’t know about that,” Nate said. He glanced around a corner into an adjoining chamber, then kept walking.

They emerged eventually into a vast round chamber webbed completely over with interlaced veins. It was completely dark, and loud with a constant deep humming sound that rattled Wade’s teeth. The air was thick with a strange silvery dust that drifted towards them despite the lack of a breeze. The weird motes flattened over a shield Wade could not see, one that Nate brought up around them with a gesture.

“I thought gravi-whatsit doesn’t work here.” Wade brought up his palm, and the shield went with it, stretching an inch away from his body.

This is TK,” Nate said. He sounded strained. Over the edge of his shirt, the infected knobs of his spine were starting to shift and curl.

“Uh, Nate. Your back,” Wade said. Laura narrowed her eyes. “It’s kinda. Spreading?”

“I fucking know. Move.” Nate led them in.

Most of the equipment in the chamber had long been webbed over or changed beyond recognition, warped into twisted pillars and humps on the ground. Chairs lay overturned and tangled in veinwork. As they walked, lights banked on overhead in brilliant stripes that filtered through gaps in the superstructure, mottling the ground they walked on and revealing the heart of the dying world. Great aortas and veins fed into a vaguely donut-shaped machine which was the source of the humming sound. The air grew warmer as they approached.

“Where’s the ‘off’ switch?” Wade looked around.

Nate started to answer and stopped. Standing before the machine was the Girl. She stared straight at Nate, her little hands squeezed tight at her hips.

“Hope,” Nate whispered.

Laura jerked back a step. Large bulges were bubbling up from the walls in a familiar pattern. Wade drew his guns, turning around, trying to count bubbles. “This is really not good,” Wade said. They had no serum this time. “So… we explode the thingy and go?” He could probably do that. Nate was wearing a rig of grenades, even.

“Wait,” Nate said. He walked over to the Girl, kneeling down before her. Took her face in his hands and leaned his forehead to hers. The Girl hissed, beginning to glow from within with a sickly pale light.

The telekinetic shielding around them dropped. Wade flinched, but the dust motes ignored him and Laura, flowing towards Nate in a whorling stream, sticking themselves on to his back, to his face and arms, until he was covered in smears of gray, until he was buried. Laura tried to pat them off Nate, but the dust merely swelled back into the furrows her fingers left.

A spider dropped down right above them. It would’ve landed on Laura if Wade hadn’t hastily blasted it aside. “Now what?” Wade asked, tense. “We explode the thing? Don’t explode the thing?”

Wait, Nate whispered in his mind. From the way Laura flinched, Wade guessed she’d heard it too.

“Fuck. This,” Laura snarled. She unsheathed her claws and jumped onto the closest spider with a yell.

“Fighting and dying it is,” Wade muttered.

Wade started to back towards Laura, taking out another spider, firing on another to crumple its legs into its flank. The ceiling was starting to inflate, a bulbous swelling framed by veins that twisted off its length like fleeing worms. Wade fired a pistol point-blank into a spider and swept under a second, pulling the triggers under its belly. He could see Laura getting impaled through the shoulder, snarling as she lopped off the leg and kept going, still spiked. A swipe knocked Wade’s gun out of his grasp and he danced back, drawing his katanas.

At least the things were ignoring Nate. Whatever he was doing. And. Yeah. Fucking finally. A huge clawed and jointed leg was pulling free from the ceiling, followed by a serrated tail, then a bulbous head with many teeth. Not quite the Xenomorph Queen, more like a squishier, scorpion-y version of her, but it was huge and it was dropping down to the ground with a tremor that quaked Wade off his feet and it was Wade’s.

“Wade… smash… monster,” Wade said, in between ducking under stabbing legs and hauling ass. He couldn’t see Laura in the mass of spiders, but he could hear her screaming in fury so he figured she was fine. Jumping off the back of a spider, Wade landed on and swarmed off one of the jointed legs, slicing it off behind him as he scrambled up to the monster’s back. An autoturret swiveled up and around from one of its spikes and Wade yelped as he caught a couple of rounds through his kidneys, somehow managed not to slip off, and close in with his katanas. As the autoturret crashed onto the floor below, the monster shrieked.

Laura yelled in reply. She was climbing up the monster’s jaw, hacking her way up with her claws. “Gerroff!” Wade called down at her. “This one’s mine!”

“Find your own giant monster, culero!” Laura shouted back. The monster twisted around, its serrated tail lashing out and catching Laura heavily against the flank. As she was thrown off, the monster snapped its jaws over her, swallowing her. Wade swore. He ducked more autoturret fire, sprinting to the monster’s head and using his weight to drive in his katana. That had no effect whatsoever—the monster merely arched, slamming its skull against the ceiling and breaking all of Wade’s ribs.

“Ouch…” Wade choked. He somehow managed to hang on, breathing hard, dazed from the pain as his body knit itself back together. The world was still brilliant with pain as spiders scuttled up the monster’s flank, ready to pounce.

The monster lurched sideways drunkenly. Spiders bounced off, slashing at nothing. Laura inside, maybe. Wade breathed as his body sorted itself out, jamming his second katana into the monster’s head. Still nothing. The creature shook itself violently, throwing him off, bouncing Wade over the concrete until he fetched up right next to Nate. Weaponless. He grabbed Nate’s rifle and shook off the motes of dust over it, turning up the dial.

“Locked and loaded,” Wade said, raising the gun. He yelped, ducking away from a tail swipe, dodging out of the way just enough to aim and fire. The knockback from the gun blew him into an advancing spider, sending them crumpling to the ground. The serrated tail shattered into two. The monster stopped weaving and twisting, turning to hiss at Wade. Shots at its head didn’t even deter it. As Wade prepared to dive free, the monster abruptly went still, sinking down onto its belly. After a moment’s pause, Laura cut herself free, covered head-to-toe in something that steamed and ate at her skin and clothes, swearing loudly in Spanish.

The world rumbled. A scream tore through the air, a little girl’s yell of anger, magnified a hundred times. Wade and Laura clapped their hands over their ears. Before Nate, the Girl was glowing brighter, brighter yet.

I’m sorry, Nate projected, crisp and loud in their minds. He unpacked a payload of memories in Wade’s mind that weren’t Wade's, a brain-melting flicker book of a child’s life, seen through the eyes of a parent who loved her but was hardly ever there. Hope had grown up with her mother but not much of her father. She had spoken her first word with her father embroiled in a conflict in Mombasa, taken her first step with her father embedded in a war in South Sudan. The memories Nate had of Hope were mostly secondhand, video recordings sent to him by Louise against Askani protocol, and it had been one of these that had betrayed his home to Firefist. A happy birthday song, sung by Louise to Hope and a video camera, hijacked and traced.

I’m sorry. Regret was all Nate had left, all that he felt that he deserved to feel. He had loved his daughter and yet he had not been there. Being missing at the end of her life had only been part of it. If this was her ghost it had the right to be angry. People might love their parents but they could not choose them and if Hope was angry, angry, then Nate accepted that. He could understand. He asked one thing of her in return: Let go.

The ghost-child before Nate was growing brighter yet, until Wade couldn’t even look upon it. Skeins of light were stitching up over the spiders as well, over the still body of the monster, the superstructure on the walls. They formed bright cracks that fed into the corridor beyond, over Wade’s infected flank. Wade shut his eyes as the light burned dancing spots into his vision. Then it was over. The Girl was gone. Nate slumped onto the ground, breathing slowly.

Chapter Text

Epilogue

Wade was pleasantly surprised to find that not all of the Vuvalini 2.0 had been brutally murdered. They’d limped back to Fort Wise somehow, with Nate unconscious the whole way. Thankfully the raiders were in disarray. Whatever Nate had done to the virus had deactivated it, which meant a lot of dying, for those who were most-of-the-way infected. Back at Fort Wise, they’d left Nate in the barracks to sleep it off and gone to find the still-living.

The courtyard had been turned into a vast triage centre, draped with canvas and tarps to ward off the sun. They found Athena off to the side, batting off nursing staff. She was liberally bloodied, her shredded leg heavily bandaged, hooked up to a drip. “I’m telling them not to waste their time,” Athena said, as they approached. “I’m dead. My body just hasn’t caught up yet.” She pointed at her belly. “Virus spread to most of my internal organs a while ago.”

“Shit.” Laura sucked in a slow breath.

“Fatima didn’t make it,” Athena said soberly.

“She wouldn’t have anyway. Heart’s infected.” Laura looked away, ostensibly to watch the nurses moving down the triage lines, comforting the dying.

“Don’t. Don’t you fucking dare feel sorry for me. We did it. The virus is dead everywhere.” Athena let out a hoarse laugh. “It’s probably the only reason why half of the strike team even made it back. We were bogged down at the last red line. It was a good run, eh?”

“It was a good run,” Wade agreed.

“So what happened?” Athena asked.

“Uhh…” Wade scratched his chin. “If this is a recap for all the fans who are confused, I think maybe I’m going to need a Powerpoint presentation.” Wade still wasn’t entirely sure what had happened. “I could try an explanation with interpretive dance?”

“We fought our way in,” Laura said. She stuck her thumbs into her belt. “I think. All this virus was part of Nate for a long time. He say it not sentient, more like a program. I think he changed it.”

“So were there ghosts or not?” Wade asked, looking around, in case any creepy little girls popped up.

Laura shrugged. “Echo of a dead person ghost? Yes. Not supernatural. Nate say virus steal his powers. Probably changed it too. Made it stranger. The echo we see, the ‘ghosts’, they’re guilt. Nate’s guilt. Real little girl, maybe not like that.”

“Manifested guilt?” Athena sighed. “Maybe. Back in HQ, they used to speculate about Dayspring. Apparently, he’s actually a very powerful mutant. Possibly the biggest telepathic talent to come out of the world since Xavier. Just that he’d learned how to use his powers to hold back the mutation.”

“So now he’s what, in Super Saiyan mode?” Wade asked, blinking. “Well, that’s not going to end well. What if he has a bad dream and bends reality in his sleep?”

“Doubt it’ll come to that.” Nate was limping out of the barracks, his infected arm dangling by his side. He winced as he came to a stop, looking Athena over. “Shit.”

“Not you too,” Athena said, with a sharp smile. “You look like hell.”

Nate looked down at his infected arm. His eye flared, and the arm moved, curling and uncurling the fingers. “If we get in touch with Mother Askani—”

“Already ahead of you. Yeah, she’s sending in medevac for people here.” Athena nodded at the triage lines. “We’ll save who we can. Me, I’m just glad it’s over. So what did you do? What was the virus up to?”

“I warped the program,” Nate said. He thought his words over, taking a slow breath. “We warped each other, I guess. It was… in its pure form, it’s a planet-killer. Civilisation-killer. It was reconstructing the bullet it was sent to Earth in. Making two.”

“For South America and Asia?” Laura guessed.

Nate nodded. “For Asia, yeah. And one to return fire. At its maker. Fire a shot back to whoever fired it here in the first place.”

Wade blinked. “That’s… weird. So it was what, part of a really complicated intergalactic suicide pact?”

“Nah. That’s not part of its original programming. It had some of its original programming still, sure. But it also had me. I’ve always been someone who’d shoot back if shot back. Worse, I’d want to destroy that person. Burn everything they know to the ground.” Nate tipped his head up, shading his eyes as he looked at the empty darkening sky. “The central cortex was right under our feet in Three Mile Island. There was still enough of me woven into the program for me to find a way to get it to stop. Can’t say I’m sorry it turned out this way.”

Athena sniffed. “Kinda wish you’d left that part of their processing intact. Shooting back, that’s the Askani way.”

“Yeah.” Nate didn’t look at Laura, his shoulders relaxing. “I’ve been thinking about that.”

#

Laura jogged over to the landing platform as the hoverjet was cleared for entry, grinning as the engines kicked her hair back over her face. The sleek silver pod settled neatly over concrete. Glass tipped up over its cockpit and Wade climbed out.

“Uuggh. I think my stomach died in there.” He lay on the platform, curling up. “What the fuck even.”

“You no’ like orbital travel?” Laura nudged Wade mercilessly in the back with her foot.

“Go away, I’m dead,” Wade moaned.

“Don’t be dramatic.” Nate was climbing out of the pod behind Wade. He walked over to Laura and shook her hand. “Good to see you again.”

“Welcome to Eden,” Laura said, with a playful gesture around them.

The landing platform sat on top of Howlett Hall, named for her father and for her. They were still clearing off viral superstructure from most of the compound, and the statue of her father still sat shattered in two pieces, but the fields were green from borrowed seeds and the replicator tech they’d begged off Aisha was finally starting to work great. Kids were playing a raucous game of tag just beyond Eden’s walls, ducking around dead pylons.

“Glad to be here.” Nate walked over to Wade and hauled him up with his infected arm. His movements were stiff and slow, but still near-natural. Nate caught Laura staring as he righted Wade on his feet. “Took a bit of getting used to,” Nate said.

“Had a year to do it,” Laura said. Nate had been lucky there. That he had TK, that only non-essential parts had been infected. Not everyone who’d had infected organs had died, but many had, and it’d overloaded the world’s organ banks, both donated and vat-grown.

“Yeah,” Nate said. They followed Laura as she led them down the stone steps cut along the outer face of the Hall, ignoring curious stares. “How’re you guys settling in?” Nate asked.

“We move everything from Canada. Virus eat everything here. But we’re keeping. Can’t complain. Still have clean water and recycling plant was fixable. Reconstruction efforts in the rest of the state not so simple. Most of the country’s still fucked.”

Nate nodded slowly. “The Askani are cooperating with the UN to help out on that front.”

“As are Hellfire Kings,” Laura said, and smiled sharply.

“Yeah—”

“Urgh, enough with the boring worldbuilding exposition already. We’re only here because Aisha’s Osorio is still keeping to itself but she told me that she gave you the pancake-making tech, true/false?” Wade demanded.

“True,” Laura said dryly. Wade whooped with joy and bulled down the stairs, clattering into the nearest building before Laura could say anything. “Which is not in there,” Laura said, over the sound of muffled screaming. “It’s OK,” she said, as Nate started forward. “I warned people you guys were coming.”

Nate slowed down. “We’re not exactly here because of pancakes. Or more accurately. Wade is, not me.”

“I guessed.” Laura led Nate down to the ground floor and over the packed dirt road near the solar panel field. “What does Mother Askani want?”

“Same offer. She foresees a messy realignment of the world, with new world powers. One that could be difficult for independent agents like Eden.” Nate avoided Laura’s eyes.

She smiled. Nate flinched a little as Laura patted his back. “So it comes to this.”

“I don’t want it to.” Nate looked tired. “The Askani’s brute force approach to the world… I’ve never questioned it before. I never had to.”

“I’m glad that you have. Even if you have to know what my answer will be.”

“I told the Mother that. That a settlement that held out against the Sentinels would never agree to a merger.”

“Is that why Osorio’s still running quiet?” Laura asked. Aisha had been evasive when contacted.

“I think so, yes. You won’t think about it?”

Laura grinned, a smile with little humour in it. She propped her shoulders against the stone block that formed the still-intact base of the shattered statue of her father. “What do you think?”

“I don’t want a war.”

“Then don’t fight one.” Laura started to say more, only to freeze at the sound of a muffled shout from Wade. “What that asshole do now?”

“I’ll go look,” Nate said, and retreated with a relief he could not hide. Left to herself, Laura looked up. The viral superstructure had taken off an uneven diagonal of the statue, leaving only the legs and an arm, the claws broken.

“What would you have done?” Laura asked the statue in the language of the land of her birth, a language that her father had never understood. The question had not truly been for him, or for the memory of him. Laura had never been shy about going her own way. She listened anyway, arms folded, and breathed in the spring.

#

The apartment Wade had shared with Ness was long gone. A tall finger of glass and steel stood in its place, still liberally pierced with dead viral strands. New York was recovering slowly two years in. Hell’s Kitchen was still dark. This part of Brooklyn was still under reconstruction. With Osorio firmly back in place under Manhattan and other boroughs coming back to life, working as mercenaries—or, as Nate liked to call it, ‘independent agents’—around these parts wasn’t a bad living.

They’d come here for Nate to pay his respects to his own ghosts. Wade had left him to it and walked down familiar-unfamiliar streets until he’d found what he was pretty sure was the right block. The day was getting cold, turning into the evening. The viral strands were chilly under Wade’s gloves as he climbed up to approximately the right floor and let himself through a breach in the glass.

The floor was thick with dust, the cavernous rooms dark and ill-lit from the bars of light on Wade’s gear. Wade wasn’t even sure what the building was for. A museum? Some kinda high-class sex club? Steel poles still ran from the floor to the ceiling, with disused projectors affixed to the roof. Dangling metallic sculptures were mashed against dull viral pylons.

As Wade climbed up to inspect one up close, he heard Nate call, “Wade?” from the ground floor.

“Up here,” Wade called back. He hopped down from the artery as Nate floated himself up to Wade’s floor, looking around curiously. “Done already?” Wade asked.

“There’s a Raider pack closing in on this area. Thought we should intervene before it gets near Osorio,” Nate said. He stared at the weird sculpture, then at Wade. “Something I should know?”

“Nah,” Wade said. He’d left a hundred years behind. Hell, maybe he was the reason why the building had changed so much. Blowing up an apartment with that much fuel had to have fucked everyone else in it. “Let’s go.” He started to head past Nate to the edge, only for Nate to catch him and tug him close.

“Something I should know?” Nate asked again, more softly.

“…You’re not the only person with bad memories in these parts,” Wade conceded.

“If you need more time—”

“Nope. I’m. Ready to go.” Wade tried to wriggle free. Nate kissed him instead, on his forehead, then on his mouth, through the mask.

Wade growled. He tugged up his mask and kissed Nate back, furious at first, biting him, then slowing down as Nate just took it with a low hum. They were breathing each other in, leaving room for more. Somehow it didn’t feel as ugly as Wade thought it would, not as much of a betrayal. It wasn’t that he was learning to forget. Wade was learning to live with loss. To grieve and move on and keep the grief as a part of him, along with the joy and the pain and the anger and everything that had made loving Ness brilliant, everything that had made losing her devastating.

Nate rumbled against him, shuddering. He knew. They were both learning. Some days would be worse than others. Some better. Survival was always part of the grieving process. Wade wasn’t done with the world yet.

Outside, the sporadic sound of gunfire was getting closer. Some things would never change in this part of the world. Wade pulled away reluctantly and grinned as Nate nudged a kiss over Wade’s nose. Nate huffed in amusement as Wade patted his ass. “We’re on the clock,” Wade said. Nate nodded. He kissed Wade again, a brief playful peck. Then they got to work.